At 65,000 tons, the ex-Varyag is smaller than the 100,000-ton American Nimitz-class carriers. Instead of the catapult used by American carriers to launch planes into the air, China’s new carrier features a “ski-jump” ramp to help aircraft take off.

These two data points generally indicate that China’s first aircraft carrier will not be nearly as capable as its American cousins. Varyag’s smaller size, and especially its ski-jump ramp, mean that it will not be able to deploy heavier planes that require the assistance of a catapult to take off. As heavier planes are required to collect information, coordinate operations, fly for long periods of time, or drop heavy ordnance, it seems that Varyag will primarily be used to extend the umbrella of Chinese air cover from its shores (as opposed to more general power projection, such as striking ground or naval targets, as conducted by American aircraft carriers).

In addition to its technical shortcomings, a single aircraft carrier is of very limited military utility. Even once testing is completed, the carrier will have to be in maintenance for several months out of the year. Additionally, China currently lacks the experienced naval aviators and sailors needed to operate a carrier successfully and safely…

It would be a mistake to overstate the strategic consequences of China’s starter carrier. It will not fundamentally alter military balances in the Asia-Pacific region, nor does it threaten U.S. military dominance. Yet it is an important harbinger of things to come.