The primary objective of the People’s Liberation Army – navy or simply the Chinese Navy was, until very recently “Anti-Access/ Area Denial” or simply A2/AD. Which means that the Chinese naval assets and shore based artillery along ballistic missiles and fighter support will deny access to “extra-regional” powers (Read: USA) from entering into the South China Sea, and more specifically near the Straits of Taiwan. Should Taiwan (RoC) declare its independence from the mainland (PRC) and should the US administration decide to intervene in the dispute in favour of RoC, China wants to deter them from doing that.
Therefore it built a vast number of diesel submarines and coastal patrol boats and missile boats that do not have the range nor the sophistication of Western navies, but are very cheap and easy to mass produce. As incidents like the bombing of USS Cole has demonstrated, you can quite easily overwhelm expensive assets like a Guided Missile Destroyer or even fighter plane with a huge number of cheap gun boats and missiles respectively. But today China is too big and powerful and can afford an aircraft carrier.China of today is now eager to project its soft power and is confident and wants to graduate from a regional powerhouse to a global superpower!
(INS Viraat and INS Vikramaditya along with her escort ships and a fleet replenishment tanker INS Deepak. Apart from the US Navy, India is the only country in the Indian Ocean to have aircraft carriers in service. Together, these 2 ACs carry more than 65 combat aircrafts + helicopters – more than twice the size of all of Sri Lankan Air Force’s combat aircrafts!)
There is nothing better in the world than an AC than can project power. For a nation like India that has strategic different priorities than the PRC, we believe in force projection or soft power. Our aircraft carrier is designed to protect our naval ships from enemy air attack and also launch limited attacks against enemy fleets and coastal targets. Its more designed as a “Fleet protection” carrier than a full fledged AC like the USN’s “Nimitz” or “Gerard Ford” class ones. Yes you are right, AC’s are bullet magnets, but the only way a navy can fight a battle over land is through the use of carrier based fighters. And the aircraft carrier (ours) will soon be mounted with the latest Barak-2 SAM protection system and also more than half a dozen CIWS (Close-in weapon system – basically a Gatling gun that shoots down enemy missiles and bombs should they close in after breaching all previous protection layers.) But that’s the last line of defense. The first line is the carriers own fighters. They can destroy enemy aircraft or ships much farther than they can hit us. Then come a protective ring of escorts like multi-purpose Frigates and guided-missile Destroyers. These have their own SAMs and CIWS and also carry ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) helicopters (Sea Kings) and then come the Carrier’s own defences.
(A Russian made AK-630 naval CIWS with two 30mm Gatling guns with their fire-control radar. INS Vikramaditya has 6* of these!)
The above mentioned are all formidable security measures. Throw in a couple of amphibious landing ships that carry a Brigade (around 3000) of marines, this task force can invade and occupy any island in the Indian ocean. The floating airbase – AC, gives that enormous force multiplying effect. It also acts to protect the other ships in the formation that I mentioned. Its is a simple thing like one match stick being easy to break whereas a bunch of them are not!
*A comment by Raghava Rayudu pointed out that INS Vikramaditya is yet to be fitted with CIWS.
While that was the case back when the article was written, since then INS Vikramaditya has undergone a short refit that provided the opportunity to fit the Barak-1 SAM system as well CIWS that were recycled from a decommissioned guided missile frigate, INS Godavari (As mentioned by the reputed Jane’s Defence Magazine in the source below).