The significance of China’s aircraft carrier ambitions

China’s aircraft carrier has been accepted by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) on the 25th September at the north-eastern port of Dalian. The ceremony was attended by President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and marked the end of a long refit for the former Soviet era carrier Varyag, which the Chinese bought from Ukraine in 1998. Fourteen years after its purchase, China has finally deployed the ship as part of the PLAN’s operational fleet, renaming it the Liaoning after the province in which Dalian is located.

There has been much debate about the significance – or potential lack of significance – of the introduction of China’s first carrier. It is clear that the Liaoning is a training carrier, but this is a vital capability if China is to proceed with a future indigenous aircraft carrier program in coming years. A number of operational skills need to be developed if the PLAN is to proceed with developing a multi-carrier navy, The first challenge is developing the ability to operate an aircraft carrier as part of a naval task force comprising naval surface combatants and support vessels, and supported from ashore and from air platforms is the next step for the PLAN. Secondly China needs to acquire suitable combat aircraft which can be based upon the Liaoning, and the future generation of aircraft carriers to follow, with the US Department of Defence stating that “it will take several years for an operationally viable air group of fixed and rotary wing aircraft to achieve even a minimal level of combat capability.” (Andrew Erickson, “China’s Modernisation of its Naval and Air Power Capabilities” in Ashley Ellis, Travis Tannerm(eds.) Strategic Asia 2012-13 – China’s Military Challenge, National Bureau of Asian Research, Washington DC, 2012, Kindle Edition) But land based training for carrier operations has been underway for a number of years, and the PLAN-AF’s J-15 Flying Shark fighter, based on purchased Russian Su-33 Flankers represents one option. Furthermore internet speculation is growing that the recently revealed Shenyang J-31 stealth fighter may also be designed for use aboard an aircraft carrier, given certain aspects of its design. Operating high performance combat aircraft off a pitching carrier deck is challenging, not just for the pilots but also for the crew of the carrier. China needs to overcome the more difficult aspects of carrier operations, including short-take off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) air operations, and managing deck operations amongst a variety of different types of aircraft, both fixed and rotary wing. The deck of an aircraft carrier represents one of the most dangerous places to be, but if managed correctly, and with skill, apparent chaos is actually organised chaos, which rarely leads to disaster. Thirdly, the PLAN ultimately needs to introduce greater joint-warfare capabilities as part of its desire to achieve ‘Integrated Joint Operations’ as a means towards an ultimate goal of an ability to fight ‘local wars under Informationised conditions’. (Richard D Fisher Jr., China’s Military Modernisation – Building for Regional and Global Reach, Standford Security Studies, 2010,p. 71). This would require other elements of the PLA – notably the PLAAF, as well as the PLA’s 2nd Artillery Division, and China’s Space and Cyberwarfare elements such as ‘3PLA’ developing the ability to support PLAN forces in distant deployments, to enhance both their defensive capabilities and their offensive punch. The Liaoning thus represents the beginning of a path towards a more capable and potent Chinese military, and it is premature to dismiss the significance of a carrier for the PLAN.

Initial responses to the commissioning of the Liaoning have ranged from concern to outright scepticism, with noted China specialist You Ji clearly in the latter camp, stating “The fact is the aircraft carrier is useless for the Chinese Navy. If it is used against America, it has no survivability. If it is used against China’s neighbours, it’s a sign of bullying” (Elizabeth C. Economy, “Liaoning – Paper Tiger or Growing Cub?” in Asia Unbound, http://blogs.cfr.org/asia/2012/09/27/liaoning-paper-tiger-or-growing-cub/ ) You Ji also notes the potential for risk even if the carrier is damaged by a smaller actor, stating “In the South China Sea, if the carrier is damaged by the Vietnamese, it’s a huge loss of face” (Jane Perlez, “China Launches Carrier, but Experts Doubt its Worth”, in The New York Times, September 25th, 2012). This dismissive perspective on China’s carrier contrasts with Chinese thinking on the issue. China watcher Andrew Erickson, and Gabe Collins highlight a very different perspective from key Chinese thinkers in their analysis (Erickson, Collins, “Introducing the ‘Liaoning’: China’s New Aircraft Carrier and What it Means”, in China Real Time Report, at http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2012/09/25/introducing-the-liaoning-chinas-new-aircraft-carrier-and-what-it-means/ ) , emphasising the importance of how the vessel might be employed to support China’s security interests in peacetime, or utilised to defeat potential adversaries in wartime. They note that the carrier will enhance China’s ability to undertake Hu Jintao’s new historic missions of 2004, including far seas cooperation, but also address the significance of more traditional missions closer to home. Most significantly, they note that Chinese thinkers see the benefit of carriers as a means to achieve local air superiority in conflicts within the First Island Chain, particularly against potential opponents other than the United States. Erickson and Collins quote Rear Admiral Chen Weiwen (PLAN rtd), who commanded China’s last significant naval force which engaged in conflict with Vietnam during the 1988 Spratly Islands. RADM Chen acknowledged the challenge posed by distant operations, where Chinese land-based air cover had a loiter time of only a few minutes over an area of operations, and states “If during the Johnson South Reef Skirmish [of 1988], we had our own air cover from a nearby aircraft carrier, we would simply not have had to fear Vietnam’s air force. Now that the Spratlys have airfields, it is much more convenient. If China’s aircraft carrier enters service relatively soon, and training is well-established, this will solve a major problem. We will seize air superiority; Vietnamese aircraft will not dare take off.” The authors note that this perspective is supported in official Chinese doctrinal thinking emerging from writers within China’s National Defence University.

Furthermore, the views of China’s aircraft carrier as a liability, noted above, seem unconvincing given how aircraft carriers are designed to operate as part of a task force. China – like the United States and other naval powers which operate aircraft carriers – understands the importance of supporting a carrier with a task force composed of naval surface combatants, underway replenishment vessels, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, including land-based maritime patrol aircraft, and even land-based fighter cover. RADM Chen’s point about air-bases in the Spratly Islands is significant in this regard. Although aircraft carriers, by the incorporation of an air-wing of combat aircraft on board can be self-defending, in more challenging operational environments it seems unlikely in the extreme that China would deploy the Liaoning, or indeed any other future aircraft carrier, into harm’s way without adequate protection from a variety of platforms that operate as part of a naval task force. These capabilities are starting to emerge as part of China’s rapid military modernisation. For example, China has begun construction of a new naval destroyer – the Type 52D – which is equipped with advanced ‘aegis-type’ phased array radars and vertical-launch missile systems. (“The emergence of 052D” in Information Dissemination, http://www.informationdissemination.net/2012/09/the-emergence-of-052d.html ) This vessel seems designed principally for anti-air warfare operations to protect a naval task force, centred on a high value asset such as an aircraft carrier, but is also likely to have a potent antiship and land-strike capability. The Type 52D destroyer probably represents the cutting edge of PLAN development in terms of surface warships, but China’s real strength lies under the waves, with its growing force of submarines. Erickson states that “China is currently developing and producing as many as six different classes of submarines: two classes of indigenously designed diesel vessels, including the Yuan class, and four of nuclear vessels…[Whilst] China’s nuclear powered submarines remain relatively noisy, [the future] Type 095 and 096 …could be the first truly capable vessels, although that remains to be seen. China’s conventional submarines, by contrast, are already relatively quiet, and in this area the PLAN boasts the world’s premier force (emphasis added by author).” (Andrew Erickson, “China’s Modernisation of its Naval and Air Power Capabilities”) As was the case in the 1982 Falklands War, with HMS Conqueror containing the Argentinian Navy after the sinking of the cruiser Belgrano, China’s advanced submarine forces would seek contain any threat posed by Southeast Asian surface navies, reducing the threat posed to PLAN naval forces, including aircraft carriers. Southeast Asian states are only beginning to acquire modern diesel-electric submarine capabilities, notably with Vietnam acquiring Kilo class, and Malaysia acquiring Scorpene boats, but both in small numbers, and both from a low-base in terms of experience using submarines. Against a more challenging opponent, such as the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) submarines operating in the East China Sea, China enjoys a quantitative edge, and appears to be closing the qualitative gap. With tension growing over the disputed Daioyu / Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, changes to the comparative naval balance between China and Japan will bear watching.

The notion that the Liaoning or another PLAN carrier would sail out to be ignominiously sunk ignores how the PLA thinks about warfare. In a series of excellent articles on The Diplomat, James Holmes examines how a US-China war might occur and how it would be fought. (James R Holmes, “The Nightmare Scenario: A US-China War” in The Naval Diplomat, at http://thediplomat.com/the-naval-diplomat/2012/09/19/the-nightmare-scanerio-a-u-s-china-war/ ) Although the analysis focused on how the US needs to respond to China’s anti-access and area denial (AA/AD) capabilities, it highlights the likelihood that China would hold off confronting an opponent symmetrically at his strongest point, but would instead allow that opponent to expend resources and energy until it is over-extended, before seizing the initiative. In this regard, the importance of submarines and shore-based missile forces is vital in weakening an opponent’s capabilities before they even can apply pressure to a PLAN task force centred on an aircraft carrier. Likewise, China’s cyber and electronic warfare capabilities also would be in the vanguard of any Chinese decision to use military force to resolve a dispute in the South China Sea, or potentially, the East China Sea, whereas the carrier task force would consolidate rapid gains inflicted upon an opponent, and secure vital land territories with Chinese amphibious units supported ashore from the carrier. Sustaining such a deployment is vital, and the PLAN is acquiring both capabilities and skills in this regard. The PLAN has begun practicing and developing skills for underway replenishment in long-range deployments, and as part of international goodwill missions that show the flag, but which also allow the PLAN to practice new types of roles such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). Deploying naval forces on long-range missions to support requires acquiring capability for replenishment, and combat sustainment, where possible supported by forward logistics facilities, including those often referred to as ‘the string of pearls’ in the Indian Ocean Region. In the South China Sea, China would have support from land-facilities on Hainan Island, as well as amongst Chinese controlled islands themselves.

As China begins to employ its carrier capability and learn lessons on how it can be employed, it seems highly likely that the PLAN’s approach to operations may change with it, with greater emphasis on achieving integrated joint operations, and developing the skills to operate naval task forces within disputed regions. Although it seems unlikely that China will seek to emulate the United States as a global blue-water navy, it does not need to. China’s military advantage lies in its ability to concentrate force at key points, both for anti-access and area denial type tasks, and for power projection within the first island chain. This will give China greater flexibility to protect its key national interests in coming years. With China now acquiring a capability for naval task forces centred on aircraft carriers equipped with sophisticated air combat capabilities, the response of the region should be significant. After all, it was as recently as a couple of years ago that many analysts had dismissed China’s carrier aspirations, and suggested that the then Varyag – now Liaoning¬ – would remain tied up as a floating casino and theme park as had been stated to be the original intention by China in purchasing its first aircraft carrier.

By Dr. Malcolm R Davis, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in China Western Relations, Department of International Relations and Centre for East-West Cultural and Economic Studies (CEWCES), Faculty of Humanities and Social Studies, Bond University, Queensland, Australia.

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