James Holmes

Five ‘Flattops’ for China?

A recent article speculates China’s navy needs three to five aircraft carriers. Even if built, not all can be ready, all the time.

Chinese scholar Wang Haiyun, a major general and one-time diplomat, thinks China’s navy needs three to five carrier task forces to realize Beijing’s maritime strategic ambitions. Writing in Globe Magazine, a subsidiary of Xinhua, Wang maintains that only such a force can police the three million square kilometers of water China claims as its own, break out of U.S.-led containment, and “avoid being subject to the blackmail of certain countries.”

I can take or leave Wang’s laundry list of reasons for a carrier fleet. He more or less takes a Rhode Island approach: throw the pasta against the wall and see what sticks. (Our Ocean State is home to an Italian-American community that excels at cuisine from the home country.) Roughly speaking, we can break down navies into forces that fight for control of the sea and those that police the sea once control has been won. Aircraft carriers are warfighting assets first and foremost. Using them for police duty wastes resources.

Wang seems to envision fielding carriers to take on U.S.-Japanese maritime forces in high-end combat. That makes sense. Exercising control of the sea, however, is something best left to lower-end platforms like corvettes, frigates, and the non-naval ships operated by China Marine Surveillance and other coast-guard-like services. You don’t need a carrier or tactical aircraft to chase fishermen out of Chinese-claimed waters, while lower-end ships can be built cheaply and in large numbers. Wang’s strategic rationale, then, is a bit of a muddle.

The number of carriers at which he arrives is about right, though, regardless of how he gets there. The old U.S. Navy thumb rule is that you divide the total number of ships by three, and that’s how many vessels are fully ready for operational service at any given moment. Given the rigors of shipyard upkeep, crew rest and training, and forward deployment, it takes three hulls to keep one on station. In recent years our navy has experimented with a “Fleet Response Plan” that increases the 3:1 ratio over the short term. But the opportunity costs to this scheme are steep, as measured in equipment and crew fatigue. The navy can surge up to two-thirds of the fleet—but not indefinitely or as a matter of routine.

Wang’s five-carrier figure thus would translate into one or two PLA Navy carriers, along with their entourage of escorts, ready for sea at any moment. Sounds like one flattop for Southeast Asian and one for Northeast Asian contingencies. Could China improve on the 3:1 ratio? Maybe. It depends on the priority the navy assigns to maintenance, and on how well Chinese shipyards execute that all-important function. It also depends on what Beijing expects of the fleet. If indeed Chinese leaders confine their maritime interests to Chinese-claimed waters, PLA Navy vessels will steam fewer miles than their U.S. Navy counterparts. Less steaming time means less wear-and-tear on hardware and fewer demands for extended overhauls. (It also means less proficient crews; you can’t escape tradeoffs.)

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So, it is conceivable that China’s navy could make a third carrier task force of a five-carrier fleet available to the political leadership. Color me skeptical—but this offers outsiders another benchmark to measure progress as China’s navy matures into an oceangoing force.