Last week Captain Zhang Zheng, the photogenic commanding officer of the PLA Navy’s first aircraft carrier, gave a remarkably frank interview in which he confessed that the PLA Navy has a long way to go before it operates carrier task forces proficiently. I agree.
I intend no slight; it takes time and trial-and-error to master an entirely new platform. But the hype that greeted the ship’s commissioning was decidedly premature. Now christened Liaoning, China’s flattop does not begin to approach the size or capability of U.S. Navy nuclear-powered carriers. Nor can its crew match the skill and experience of U.S. CVN crews. Herewith, my list of the Top 5 reasons why the Liaoning is outclassed by its American counterparts:
5. No air wing. At first blush this seems like the main hurdle to an effective carrier task force. The air wing constitutes a carrier’s “main battery,” or offensive punch, not to mention a major element of the fleet’s defense against aerial, surface, or subsurface attack. But the PLA Navy now possesses a working flattop and, apparently, combat aircraft capable of operating from its flight deck. The rest is a matter of doctrinal development and sheer practice for aircrews. These are soluble problems given ample time, resolve, and patience. Indeed, training will be the Liaoning’s chief function for the foreseeable future.
4. Size. The Liaoning displaces about two-thirds the tonnage of an American CVN. Its air wing is commensurately smaller. Built by the Soviet Union, it was designed to accommodate 28 fighter/attack aircraft, a fraction of the U.S. complement. A one-on-one shootout between the Liaoning and a U.S. flattop, then, would be no contest.
3. Non-nuclear propulsion. Naval nuclear propulsion isn’t everything, but it does comprise a commanding advantage. U.S. CVNs are swifter, boast virtually unlimited cruising range, and steam for years without refueling. They do need to take on jet fuel every few days to conduct regular flight operations; their aircraft aren’t nuclear-powered. Still, reducing the logistical burden translates into greater tactical and operational flexibility for commanders.
2. Escorts and combat logistics. Carriers steam in company with a coterie of escorts and support vessels. The PLA Navy, however, has not yet filled out the remainder of a carrier task force. The navy’s newest guided-missile destroyers appear adequate for air-defense purposes, but anti-submarine warfare remains a puzzling shortfall—particularly since China’s likely adversaries, the United States and Japan, excel at undersea operations. Combat logistics—oilers, ammunition ships, refrigerated stores ships—remains another glaring shortcoming for the PLA Navy. These unglamorous but crucial vessels can replenish men-of-war, allowing them to stay at sea for long intervals without returning to port. Chinese task forces will remain vulnerable and tethered to shore logistical support until shipbuilders plug these gaps in the inventory.
1. Human excellence. As Theodore Roosevelt observed in his history of The Naval War of 1812, it takes the finest ships and the finest crews to make up a fleet capable of vying for maritime command. The finest weapon is no better than its wielder. Until the Liaoning ship’s company and air wing start operating regularly at sea, they are unlikely to develop the skills, habits, and esprit de corps necessary to contend with rivals like the U.S. Navy or Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. This may not matter that much for the foreseeable future, since the PLA Navy fleet will probably operate mainly within reach of extended-range shore fire support. But once the navy ventures beyond that protective aegis—and should competitors find ways to blunt the PLA’s anti-access weaponry—the human factor promises to become critical indeed.