Chinese aircraft carriers and IKEA meatballs

The world is buzzing today over the news that China is testing its first full-sized commercial airplane. We talked about it last weekend, but sometimes it takes the rest of the world time to catch up. 

But I'll tell you what's even bigger news than a commercial airplane: It's China's effort to build a homemade aircraft carrier. Whether they succeed or fail with this one, they're learning. And it's a big, big deal.

Here's (roughly) what I said on the air last weekend (and don't forget to tune in this weekend so you can get tomorrow's news today!):

I come from an industry in which Chinese-made knockoffs are widely derided — they are objects of scorn, and rightfully so, often being made of inferior materials in factories with imprecise and outdated equipment, built to reverse-engineered specifications that almost always miss critical features of the original design. (One such design on one knockoff product I’ve seen completely misidentifies the purpose of an essential safety feature — and is so badly off the mark that it’s an imminent threat to the life and limb of anyone who operates the copycat equipment.)

But I take this aircraft carrier with a completely different degree of seriousness. This is a big development. Like, on a scale with China developing its own stock market. Or launching its first astronaut into space.

That’s not because I think this first aircraft carrier is going to be any good. To the contrary; I’ll wager right now that there is a very good chance it will be riddled with more bugs than the initial release of Windows Vista. China has been experimenting with the construction of its own passenger jets, too, and has encountered major delays and huge problems with airworthiness certifications. It was reported by Forbes just the other day that the “C919” — a full-sized Chinese passenger jet — has gotten approval from domestic authorities to fly — but don’t expect to see it on any international routes anytime soon. What passes for a safety approval when the same government is building and approving the same aircraft isn’t going to fly, so to speak, when it has to be scrutinized by outside authorities. It’s no surprise that building a sizeable passenger jet is a massively complex undertaking — Mitsubishi, for instance, started with a blank sheet of paper in 2008, and now has a regional jet undergoing FAA certifications. It’s not ready yet — probably another two years remain — and that’s with Mitsubishi’s massive experience as a heavy manufacturer standing behind it.

It doesn’t matter. The aircraft carrier could sink tomorrow in the middle of the South China Sea, and it wouldn’t matter at all in the big picture.

The big picture, you see, is that China is taking on a project of extraordinary complexity. There’s basically no more complex piece of moving equipment in the world than an aircraft carrier. And with that complexity come lots and lots of opportunities to make mistakes. But with those mistakes come opportunities to learn. And China is clearly trying to learn.

Throw a bunch of really sharp people together, give them an existential motivation to act, and define a clear goal, and you could very well find yourself on the lookout for developments that will be revolutionary in character. That’s what happened when Kennedy motivated the mission to put a man on the Moon.

China’s government has every reason to see the successful projection of military power into the Pacific Ocean (and beyond) via aircraft carrier as a matter of existential urgency, right on a par with our own fear of losing the Space Race to the Soviet Union. And so it’s not whether aircraft carrier #1 is any good — that doesn’t really matter.

What matters is what they’ll have learned from building #1 that they manage to put to work in building #2, #3, and #4. And then #5 and #6.That’s a very, very big deal. Because in the process of building a few aircraft carriers, China will learn how to build better carriers each time. And by their third or fourth, they’ll probably have a pretty good idea of how to build a reputable ship.

But more importantly, a project of this scope gives China basically incomparable experience with undertaking projects of massive complexity. They’ve already undertaken huge engineering projects (like building the massive Three Gorges Dam, for example). But this is a military project of a gigantic magnitude, requiring levels of skill and coordination that are really difficult to develop in any other way than practice.

This isn’t a matter of building a copycat toaster or microwave. It’s not even about stealing chemical formulas and airplane designs through corporate espionage and cyberwarfare. This is about developing the capacity to undertake a really huge project — one that only a handful of countries have ever tried — and see it through to the finish…then turning around and doing it again.

The Pacific Ocean is big. Really big. And maybe it’s even big enough for more than one power player: China, Russia, and of course, us. But it’s also about to get a whole lot more crowded. And once China has the fleet strength to put three or four aircraft carriers into motion — even if they never engage any other countries, and even if they stick to the established laws of the high seas — it still puts a dramatic message on display in giant letters to everyone in the region and, really, throughout the world, that 1.3 billion people are now prepared to project their collective strength all over the globe. Considering how hard China has been working to develop client states all over the globe — especially in Africa and South America — they’re going to have more and more excuses to start showing up in previously unexpected places.

And, even more significantly, it says that they’re learning how to do sophisticated things. Things that signify strength. Things that force the development of lots of new capabilities. Things that ultimately make a developing country a whole lot less dependent on technology from the outside, and a whole lot more capable of starting from scratch on the inside.

Even if China produces a whole lot of junk at the consumer and commercial levels…even if they’re still struggling to build a regional jet that works…even if this first aircraft carrier capsizes on its maiden voyage…we need to take this seriously. It’s a cliche, perhaps, but a valid one: You don’t go to school to learn, so much as you go to learn how to learn. And building an aircraft carrier is a master class in learning how to learn.

What are we learning? What are we doing to meet the goals that will really stretch us as a country? How hard are we trying to learn how to learn?

Just remember:

  • The first time is always the hardest. Future carriers will be easier to build, and that will affect the balance of power in the Pacific.
  • The future belongs to those individuals, firms, and nations who learn to do new things. Building a carrier is a serious stretch goal.
Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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