With the impending entry into service of China's first aircraft carrier, the upgraded Russian Varyag, renamed Shi Lang, one US analyst explains how the Chinese might employ the vessel.
The expert, a respected naval officer whose ideas are widely discussed, spoke on condition of anonymity.
According to the officer, Shi Lang could represent the major vehicle for the second phase of a two-step process for the People's Liberation Army Navy. The process would see the PLAN evolve from its current, mostly coast-bound status to a true ‘blue-water’ force capable of controlling distant waters and influencing events in adjacent lands.
Before Shi Lang could sail into distant regions and launch aircraft to both control the skies and possibly bomb land targets, smaller warships would need to clear the region of enemy warships. In naval terminology, that's called ‘sea control.’ It’s the process of defeating a defending enemy fleet to open up contested waters for follow-on forces.
It’s debatable whether sea control is actually the PLAN’s primary goal. Some navies are designed to be strictly defensive and sail only in their own national waters. Others only operate in undefended waters for mostly peaceful purposes such as disaster relief. Most navies mix these concepts with sea control, to one degree or another. The US Navy, by far the world's largest fleet, aims to excel at all possible tasks.
But the US analyst said recent PLAN construction efforts point toward a growing emphasis on sea control. ‘You have to look at the types of ships they're designing and what the changes are that have occurred in ship design.’
‘Up until 10 years ago, Chinese ships were created without the ability to self-protect or self-project,’ the officer continued. ‘Self-projection’ refers to a ship's ability to carry enough supplies for long-range missions. ‘Now you have an entire generation of DDGs (guided-missile destroyers) they've created that have the ability to go out and enough robust anti-air defenses to operate untied from shore installations.’
As late as the 1990s, the PLAN possessed just one true guided-missile destroyer. Since 2002, Beijing has completed two Type 052Cs that, at 7,000 tons displacement, are just a few thousand tons smaller than the US Navy's Arleigh Burke destroyers, the world's most numerous and capable large surface warships. The Type 052C comes equipped with long-range radars plus around 50 surface-to-air missiles and short-range guns.
Two more Type 052Cs are apparently under construction. By the time they enter service in a few years, the PLAN could have mastered basic tactics for sailing groups of destroyers into contested waters, thanks to China's participation in the international counter-piracy effort off the Somali coast.
‘The great thing about the counter-piracy patrols is they've allowed them to practice working in formations and small groups,’ the officer said. ‘That suggests to me they're getting ready to break loose from their shore tether and go blue-water and do sea-control.’
Coupled with Shi Lang, Chinese refinement of the technology and tactics of destroyer-warfare ‘tells me they're looking beyond sea control and looking at the potential for power projection,’ the analyst added.