For decades now, aircraft carriers have been the dominant symbols of military power and technological strength. Nations who develop them have the ability to strike their enemy from thousands of miles away, inflicting massive damage.
But these vessels also cost billions of dollars to develop and several billions more in maintenance and upgrade costs over their lifecycle. Recent reports over the curious decommissioning and sale of the Cold War era British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal underscore this reality.
In 2010, Britain cut military spending by 8 percent, and its older, but still capable, carriers fell to the austerity axe. In today’s era of belt tightening and economic turmoil, British carrier cuts are just one example of the savings that European nations are trying to make. But there’s another bit of symbolism here – the Ark Royal is rumoured to have been the target of a bid from a jailed Chinese businessman, who wishes to turn the former flagship of the British Navy into a floating casino.
It seems hugely symbolic – a reflection of China’s economic rise, and Britain’s gradual fall from the top table of international diplomacy. But haven’t we heard the casino tale before?
Chinese purchases of old carriers for study, under the guise that they’ll be turned into casinos or amusement parks, is nothing new. After all, China’s desire to deploy aircraft carriers in the near future has long been noted, and has recently been officially acknowledged.
Back in 1985, China purchased the World War II era Australian carrier HMAS Melbourne for a disposal fee, only to halt its break up for several years to study its design. The Chinese also purchased three Soviet era carriers in the 1990’s from Russia and the Ukraine: the Kiev, Minsk and Varyag. The Kiev and Minsk were indeed eventually turned into amusement parks. However, the Chinese studied both carriers carefully in their ongoing efforts to develop carrier technology. While both carriers possessed nowhere near the capabilities of modern US nuclear carriers, any secrets or technology the Chinese could learn on the cheap would have proved useful for later vessels. Spending millions initially instead of billions later so they could learn from others’ successes and failures would only have benefitted Chinese military planners and speeded up their efforts.
And those efforts are now paying off. The Varyag, the most famous of their ‘casino’ acquisitions, was purchased in March 1998 for $20 million dollars. The Chinese company that purchased the vessel had strong ties to the Chinese military, and the then Varyag would become trapped in limbo for over 15 months. Turkish officials wouldn’t allow the carrier to move through the Dardanelles, citing a long-standing rule of not allowing carriers passage through the straits. It has been rumoured that China then offered Turkey more than $360 million dollars in a nicely crafted ‘tourism and economic aid package’ to allow the passage of the presumed floating casino.
But the Varyagnever was kitted out with slot machines or craps tables. Instead, the Soviet era carrier was completely stripped down and recreated into a more modern aircraft carrier. Armed with 4th generation fighter aircraft that look strangely Russian, China is close to having its first carrier. The now renamed Shi Lang has encountered some technical issues, but sea trials are expected to start soon.
China’s purchasing old carriers around the world under various schemes has served them well. They have acquired knowledge of multiple generations of aircraft carriers from several different nations and shipbuilders – for bargain basement prices. With Russia, Ukraine and Britain all at various times facing economic difficulty, China has paid millions for other nations billions of dollars in carrier R&D. While the Chinese haven’t gained access to ultra-modern nuclear carriers similar to US designs, the knowledge they have gained has still allowed them to explore multiple carrier designs that undoubtedly proved useful in rebuilding the Shi Lang. Their tactics may also be of substantial benefit in any future indigenous designs.
With the build-up of Chinese naval forces and the development of Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile technology, one must wonder if Washington is now urging London to halt any Chinese bid for the Ark Royal. While the Chinese would be able to gain limited knowledge from the carrier as her radar and advanced electronics would be removed before the ship is handed over, it would still give the Chinese insights into older but relevant carrier design and know how.
While the Ark Royal sale remains uncertain, China’s track record of carrier purchases that later end up in military hands surely makes it a possibility that this is what has motivated the bid. As the US and British militaries come to terms with budget cuts, China’s strategy of ‘casino’ acquisition certainly appears to be reaping some sizeable and cost-effective benefits.