When is an aircraft carrier not an aircraft carrier? The answer could be: when it is Chinese.
The first aircraft carrier in the history of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s), which began sea trials earlier this week and churned up no shortage of media conjecture as it got underway, has to be understood on two different levels: the symbolic and the purposive.
Symbolically, the launching of the carrier is another instalment in the narrative of China’s achievement of great-power status. It belongs in the same bracket as the Three Gorges Dam, the Qingdao-Haiwan sea bridge and high-speed rail: mega-projects that demonstrate China’s technological prowess and boundless capacity to accomplish whatever it sets its mind to (even if, before too long, the dams crack and the trains crash).
The carrier’s military symbolism is also immensely powerful. In truth, the PLA’s most successful modernisation programmes haven’t been conventional platforms like warships so much as asymmetric weapons – systems that aim to subvert the enemy’s strengths rather than counter them with like-for-like solutions. Anti-ship ballistic missiles, anti-satellite systems and cyber warfare all fit into this category. Aircraft carriers most certainly don’t. However, the general public – not to mention the mainstream media and presumably many politicians, including Chinese ones – have no idea what asymmetric weapons are; they are esoteric concepts that don’t capture the imagination. Aircraft carriers on the other hand, just like the flashy new fighter jet that China debuted in January, are part of the widely understood lexicon of hard power. People appreciate that a country with an aircraft carrier is part of an elite and powerful club – and that’s precisely the message that the Chinese government wants the carrier to convey both to its domestic and foreign audiences. It’s a comprehensible metaphor for China’s arrival, and something to keep the nationalists sweet.
The ship has great economic symbolism as well. Just as China was launching its carrier, the United States was announcing that it was trimming the size of its carrier fleet in order to save money. It was the perfect moment for the Xinhua news agency to chide has-been America for spending reckless amounts on defence so that it could ‘meddle’ internationally while ‘paying no heed to whether the economy can support this.’ The message was that only China, sitting pretty atop $2 trillion in reserves, now has the fiscal right to build these military luxuries.
However, the practical purpose of China’s aircraft carrier programme is more open to interpretation. Is the carrier a symbol, and nothing more? Or is the refurbished ex-Soviet vessel also the thin end of a wedge that will culminate in a bona fide Chinese carrier capability, with all the security implications that that entails? With many countries in the Asia-Pacific looking on with varying degrees of concern, there are important questions that need to be addressed:
What is China’s first carrier actually capable of?
China’s own declaration that the ship is ‘obsolete’ and ‘for training purposes’ is probably fairly accurate. Naval analysts Andrew Erickson and Gabriel Collins have described the ex-Varyag – widely reported to have been renamed Shi Lang – as a ‘starter carrier,’ and it’s hard to imagine it ever being used as a weapon of war. This is a ship with training wheels for a navy that has never operated a carrier before. The first major milestone, after confirming that the ship itself functions, will be equipping the carrier with its air arm of naval J-15 fighters, which are themselves unproven and still in development. Dean Cheng, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, estimates that the PLAN could achieve this objective within a six to 18-month timeframe. But training pilots to fly off carriers will be a long and costly exercise, he says. ‘This will inevitably involve failures, they will lose pilots,’ Cheng warns. ‘How will they handle that and what will be the political ramifications?’
How will China develop its carrier fleet thereafter?
This is unknown. China is rumoured to be constructing two new indigenous carriers at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, though this hasn’t been confirmed, and to be targeting a 2015 launch. This assumes that Chinese ship-builders are able to overcome the problems of constructing this particularly complex type of ship (it took five years just to refurbish Varyag). The design of the new carriers will reveal a great deal about their capabilities, not least their size, whether they are nuclear or conventionally powered, and whether they have ski ramps (like Varyag) or catapults that might accommodate larger aircraft capable of flying reconnaissance and command-and-control missions (Chinese engineers have no experience so far of many of these technologies).
Developing doctrine for the carriers will be less of a challenge, Cheng reckons. ‘Shi Lang has been in refurb at least five years, so they’ve been thinking about doctrine for a long time.’ China might be expected to build these first two indigenous carriers and then pause, as it hasn’t historically constructed large series of naval vessels (except small patrol and attack craft). However, Stacy Pedrozo, of the Council on Foreign Relations, writes that China intends to use aircraft carriers to help ‘put an end to US military dominance in the Pacific and Indian Oceans’ in the 2020 to 2040 timeframe, and achieving this would seem to require the construction of several additional carriers, working on the principle that you need three carriers to keep one continually at sea. In a recent congressional report, naval affairs analyst Ronald O’Rourke suggests that China could build as many six in total.
What peace-time applications would a fleet of Chinese carriers have?
China will use its carriers as bearers of diplomatic signals, both friendly and unfriendly. They will be used for high-impact port calls and humanitarian/disaster-relief missions. They will also be called upon to express Beijing’s dissatisfaction. ‘An early operation will be the conducting of air operations outside the 12 nautical mile limit off the United States’ west coast to counter US operations off the Chinese littoral,’ predicts Cheng. They could also be deployed to bolster China’s presence in the disputed territories of the South China Sea, especially as long as the PLA Air Force’s range is limited by its lack of air-to-air refuelling capability. However, Beijing would have to weigh this option against the incendiary – and potentially escalatory – impact that a carrier’s presence might have during times of tension.
And what are the war-time applications?
‘The carrier would be a sitting duck in a conflict,’ suggests a US naval analyst, speaking on background. ‘The prestige value is its serious function.’ There is therefore a real possibility that China has no intention of ever using its carriers as war-fighting assets, since to risk losing one would be a significant blow to national prestige, just as the carrier’s launch has been a boost. The deep water of the South China Sea, ideal for submarines, would be an unforgiving operational environment for a Chinese carrier in war-time, unless China significantly advances its anti-submarine warfare capabilities, masters highly complex naval air operations and develops a range of other protective systems and escort operations (which, given China’s vast R&D budget, it has a realistic chance of doing).
But even then, Robert Rubel of the US Naval War College writes that, while the aircraft carrier is far from obsolete, ‘the seas, at least certain areas of them, are becoming no-man’s land for surface ships’ – and remember that Chinese carriers are entering this harsh environment from the lowest possible base. It’s hard to imagine, therefore, that the PLA intends for these carriers steam into battle to be nothing more than soft targets for enemy aircraft, missiles and submarines. ‘We should not assume that the Chinese are going to use these carriers in the ways that we would like them to,’ says Cheng. Feasibly, China could employ its carriers to participate in international operations requiring air power, but Beijing doesn’t yet seem politically minded to involve itself in this kind of mission. As for warfare against peer or near-peer nations, China might be calculating that it’s highly unlikely ever to be involved in this type of warfare, and that its carriers’ vulnerability will therefore never be exposed.
Do Chinese carriers alter the balance in the Taiwan Strait?
The PLA’s modernisation programme has been heavily guided by the Taiwan contingency, and China already has over 1,300 missiles in place with which to strike the island. So it’s hard to see how a Chinese aircraft carrier changes the calculus. In fact, the carriers are probably the clearest indication of post-Taiwan thinking that the PLA has demonstrated to date. Still, Taiwan reacted to the launch of Shi Lang by trumpeting its new Hsiung Feng III anti-ship cruise missile, complete with a picture of the weapon dispatching a Chinese carrier. Yet this was only a PR exercise – Taipei knows that the PLA’s missiles, not its new ship, are the real threat. It’s ironic that while the original Shi Lang was a Qing commander who captured Taiwan, this Shi Lang has little prospect of following meaningfully in his footsteps, even if China one day reclaims the island.
What are the implications for the South China Sea?
The possession of aircraft carriers undermines China’s argument that its defence strategy is purely defensive in nature. As a power-projection asset, an aircraft carrier has no defensive application, and this fact hasn’t been lost on China’s neighbours. Vietnam, for example, is investing in six Russian Kilo-class submarines in direct response to PLAN modernisation (though not aircraft carriers specifically) – mainly because it disbelieves China’s statements of benign intent. ‘The Kilos plus Vietnam’s Sukhois, as well as the land-based Bastion [anti-ship] missiles that Vietnam has, would all be a big problem for a Chinese flotilla,’ explains Carlyle Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy. So we return to the PLA’s age-old problem: communication. China has never articulated what its aircraft carriers are for, and until it does so its neighbours – already sensitive about perceived acts of aggression in the disputed zones of the South China Sea – will continue to wonder whether Chinese power is about to be projected in their direction. ‘It’s for some of those smaller powers on China’s periphery, much more than Taiwan or the US, that this could fundamentally change things and force them to respond,’ says William Murray, a professor at the US Naval War College. ‘China is going to have a tough time persuading them.’
China’s aircraft carriers, far from being the anachronistic conventional weapons they seem, could therefore prove to be the most impressive asymmetric weapons that China has developed so far: warships that pack an almighty diplomatic punch – raising esteem at home and commanding respect abroad – but which aren’t designed for battle. Meanwhile, the United States and others will expend a huge amount of energy over the next few years trying to figure out if this is really the case.