The Carrier Dilemma: How Many is Enough?
Image Credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet (flickr)

The Carrier Dilemma: How Many is Enough?

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Reports on Monday indicated that the PLAN has finally settled on a name for its aircraft carrier, heretofore known as the ex-Varyag.  While speculation included names such as “Beijing,” “Mao Zedong,” and “Shi Lang,” the PLAN instead decided to adopt a relatively conventional naming strategy, dubbing the refurbished Soviet-era carrier “Liaoning” in honor of the province that has hosted the warship’s refit.

Most analysts agree that China will pursue the construction of additional aircraft carriers, but at this point the opacity of Chinese defense planning has not revealed how many ships the PLAN intends to operate.  In a recent article for Globe Magazine, a Chinese security scholar and major general argued that China needs up to five carriers to manage its maritime security. 

The PLAN’s carrier battle groups will embark into an increasingly crowded sea. India will shortly take possession of its own refurbished Soviet carrier, and plans to operate three by early in the next decade.  The Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force operates a pair of “helicopter carrying destroyers” that resemble small carriers.  And of course the United States Navy operates eleven fleet carriers, along with another nine light carriers (amphibious assault ships).

The proliferation of flat deck aircraft carrying warships in East Asia creates problems for the sort of static analysis of maritime requirements that General Wang Haiyun’s contribution represents.  Generating expectations for warfighting needs in absence of good estimates of potential enemy capabilities is extremely difficult. While static analysis of maritime interests (the North Sea Fleet and the South Sea Fleet each require an operational carrier, for example) has its value, it is very likely that China, India, Japan and the United States will all begin to think dynamically and strategically about their force needs. Another way of phrasing this is that any credible understanding of China’s maritime needs requires an estimation of Indian, Japanese, and American naval capabilities, and of how those states will respond to Chinese expansion.

A similarly static debate has emerged in the United States over the current size of the USN. Comparisons of the fighting power of the 1917 edition of the U.S. Navy with the 2012 edition are not (when adjusted for capability “inflation”) without interest or utility, but require context. For example, in 1917 the United States Navy possessed fourteen modern dreadnought battleships, trailing not only the Royal Navy (forty-one battleships and battlecruisers) but also the Kaiserliche Marine (twenty-five battleships and battlecruisers). That the USN of 1917 was substantially inferior to two global competitors while the USN of 2012 is wildly superior to any competitor is considerably more important than the accidental similarity in raw numbers. 

But obviously, dynamic, comparative analysis holds its own dangers.  As Chinese and India carriers enter service, competitive dynamics may take over, leading to a further desire to expand naval capabilities.  The obvious analogue is the dreadnought race undertaken by Britain, Germany, and several other countries prior to and during World War I. Given that questions of national prestige can easily wrap themselves around naval procurement, the potential for maritime arms competition is high.

In the wake of the First World War, the great maritime powers assigned tight quotas on the number, size, and hitting power of vessels they could construct.  While the Washington Naval Treaty system may have failed to prevent war, it did represent accurately recognize the fundamentally relative nature of military power.  Five aircraft carriers mean little in context of the capabilities of China’s regional and global competitors. At the moment, zero aircraft carriers are needed to defend China’s maritime interests.  Should China’s understanding of its competitors and its threat environment expand (potentially in response to China’s own construction), a dozen carriers may not suffice. 

Dr. Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.  He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination, and can be found on Twitter at @drfarls.

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