Debates over China’s anti-access system of systems and its desire to pierce the successive Pacific Island chains often overlook the fact that China faces a very basic set of maritime problems. The PRC draws its most important resources from across an ocean that it cannot control, and exports most of its finished goods to overseas partners who similarly lay beyond the reach of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Whether or not the PLAN can deter or defeat the U.S. Navy (USN) in China’s littoral, the organization’s true test lies in its ability to secure the PRC’s critical lines of communication.
The concept of the Sea Control Ship builds on the World War II experience of escort carriers; small, slow aircraft carriers with air wings focused on anti-submarine missions. The Royal Navy and the United States Navy pioneered development of these ships, designed to cover the gaps in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) air coverage over the Atlantic. Escort carriers were remarkably successful in forcing German U-boats to remain submerged, or destroying them outright.
The United States played with the concept (espoused most vigorously by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt) during the Cold War without ever embracing it outright, although it did convert several old Essex class carriers to perform anti-submarine duties. The USN also experimented with converting USS Guam (an Iwo Jima class LPH) to sea control duties, although the experience was not widely regarded as a success. Nevertheless, healthy debate in the Navy continued into the late 1970s and 1980s.
In practice, the USN did not need to construct dedicated Sea Control Ships, because so many U.S. allies operated (and continue to operate) small carriers that perform basic sea control missions. Ranging from the Colossus class carriers distributed across the world at the end of World War II, to the Spanish Dedalo, to the modern Hyuga class Helicopter Destroyer, the USN could and can depend on allies to conduct escort missions. The USN could also rely on access to airbases worldwide in order to support land-based sea control aviation.
China has none of these advantages. No Chinese ally is likely to devote treasure to the construction of sea control ships in the near future (Pakistan might be the best long term bet), and China lacks access to good bases for counter-sea aviation. For sea control beyond China’s littoral, the PLAN has few, if any, good options.
In a structurally similar position to China (although much less dependent on foreign trade), the Soviet Navy started with what amounted to Sea Control Ships, in the form of the Moskva class helicopter carriers and the Kiev class “heavy aviation cruisers.” Although these ships weren’t designed specifically with commerce protection in mind, they were specialized for anti-submarine warfare, with allowance for air superiority and surface warfare in the Kiev class. Moreover, Soviet naval aviation evolved over time, with new platforms benefitting from experiences earned with older vessels.
China has been determined to leap several stages, with consequences for training that are already becoming apparent. But perhaps more importantly, by skipping ahead the PLAN has left itself bereft of the kind of low cost, medium size platforms that can support sea control operations at a distance from home. The lack of these sea control platforms (or suitable alternatives) will leave the PLAN at a serious disadvantage when and if it needs to protect lines of communication in unfriendly environments. Liaoning can only operate in one place at a time, and only for a limited time period. The PLAN might have been better served by adopting the more evolutionary Soviet approach to naval aviation.