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On April 26th, 2017, the shipyards of Dalian, China were buzzing with activity. The Chinese Navy was about to launch a new warship, one that would cement China’s status as a major naval power. As nearby vessels blew their whistles in celebration, a Chinese official smashed a bottle of champagne against the gray hull, blessing it in the mariner’s tradition. China’s national anthem played as confetti and streamers shot into the sky surrounding the 66,000-ton ship—tentatively known as Type 002. This past summer it conducted sea trials in the Yellow Sea.
There's cause for celebration: Aircraft carriers have been the dominant weapon at sea since the carriers Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown helped the US win the battle of Midway, and they “remain critical to projecting power around the world,” says Robert Farley, Senior Lecturer at the University of Kentucky and an expert on naval warfare. Yet even as other countries —including the United Kingdom, Japan, and Italy—continue to build the vessels, they could be sailing into the sunset.
Aircraft carriers are expensive, and potentially dangerous: The total loss of just one Ford-class carrier would result in twice as many deaths as what the U.S. Navy suffered during attack on Pearl Harbor. And they’re ill-equipped to handle a new generation of weapons, including high-speed torpedoes, anti-ship ballistic missiles, and hypersonic weapons—which could make them extinct within a generation. And already, experts have some intriguing ideas about what might replace them.