The reactions to what appeared to be the confirmation last week that China has embarked on a program to build its own aircraft carrier were as varied as they were expected, ranging from alarmism to the usual dismissal of the large platforms as little more than hugely expensive boats for enemy target practice. While carriers do indeed have severe vulnerabilities, they are not without their uses, though those are a function of the role(s) they are expected to play.
The first role is more psychological than utilitarian. There is no doubt that China’s domestic program is directly related to the country’s desire to be regarded as a major power, of which aircraft carriers, warts notwithstanding, serve as an undeniable symbol. Although the acquisition of the ex-Varyag, its eventual refurbishment, and its rechristening as the Liaoning following its entry into service, provided a major boost to China’s self-image, the platform nevertheless served as reminder of China’s reliance on external assistance. For that reason alone, a domestic carrier will help China cross a very important psychological barrier and signal to the world that it is now a major and, perhaps more importantly, self-sufficient power.
Additionally, the program cannot be dissociated from the need for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) services to justify growing budgets (a carrier project, while already requiring extraordinary amounts of funding, will in turn generate further budgetary requirements as carrier battle groups must be built to accompany them, while carrier-capable aircraft must also be created).
Evidently, the ambitions of military services alone would not in and of themselves be sufficient to rationalize the allocation of such budgets without the acquiescence of the political leadership and the conditions that can help justify their development. China’s regional — and perhaps global — ambitions, which seem to be expanding under Xi Jinping’s leadership (though the carrier program would likely have been approved under the Hu Jintao administration), make it easier to sell the need for various power-projection platforms such as aircraft carriers.
The key term here is power projection. In an age where a number of countries, big and small, have acquired or can easily acquire the means to sink aircraft carriers, the decision to build and deploy expensive and ultimately vulnerable platforms may appear counterintuitive. After all, critics would argue that from a purely combat perspective, it would be much more sensible to build dozens, if not hundreds, of smaller vessels equipped with torpedoes and cruise missiles for the same price, what with the advantages of dispersal, radar evasion, and so on.
What those critics fail to realize is that aircraft carriers may no longer be regarded as primarily war-fighting instruments, but rather are to be used as tools of psychological warfare in the context of regional power projection. And here, size does matter. In such a context, the utility of an aircraft carrier stems not so much from its ability to serve as a semi-permanent range extension for combat aircraft and bombers — which certainly cannot be discounted — but instead as the bully’s perfect weapon, one that ensures that belligerents actually never come to blows. The reason is simple: during the phases of a dispute that precede actual combat, competitors must constantly assess the costs and benefits of crossing the line by launching offensive operations. Whoever strikes first must do so with the understanding that such actions will prompt a reaction, which can range from (optimally) capitulation to (worst scenario) retaliation in kind. Normally, retaliation will be commensurate with, or represent a slight escalation over, the nature of the initial attack.
What we have here, therefore, is a gradient of severity. As we saw, every decision to use force will prompt a reaction, which inherently imposes psychological brakes on the advisability of launching combat operations. Aware of this, rational military and political decision-makers will calibrate their response to a situation by presumably choosing to shoot down or sink the platform which is of least value to the opponent first. Under this logic, the decision to down an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) can be arrived at with much greater ease than that of shooting at a manned aircraft, as killing a human being is already one step up the ladder of belligerence. Sinking a small attack boat with a few men and women on board is equally less problematic than sending an entire destroyer to the bottom of the ocean, and so on.
Beyond the human cost is the symbolic value of the target involved: The higher the symbolic value of the platform, the more friction there is against the decision to attack it, as the cost of doing so increases. And in terms of symbolic value — not to mention other important variables such as lives involved and dollar value — nothing beats an aircraft carrier.
Consider, therefore, a small country in Southeast Asia that faces a territorial dispute with China. Imagine that our hypothetical country, while much weaker than China, has the capabilities to sink an aircraft carrier, but does not itself have a carrier in its fleet. Following weeks of saber rattling and failed talks, the PLA Navy decides to dispatch vessels to the area, and the other side sends its own ships. As tensions rise, China sends its aircraft carrier, which adds a whole new dimension to the conflict by making it possible to use combat aircraft and bombers against a variety of targets within the area. In a combat situation, sinking the aircraft carrier would be the most rational choice, as doing so would deny China a major offensive capability. However, in a conflict situation that has not yet reached the combat phase, the aircraft carrier casts a long shadow. Even if country X can, as we saw, sink the carrier, the psychological barriers against doing so are extraordinarily powerful, as an attack against it would represent a tremendous escalation that would in turn force the PLA to respond commensurately — in this case, all-out war and, presumably, attacks against a variety of high-value targets. Rather than face such a devastating outcome, the smaller belligerent would refrain from targeting the aircraft carrier and likely seek to negotiate its way out of the impasse, or capitulate altogether in the face of unfavorable odds. Should it choose to launch military operations against the PLA while refraining from targeting the carrier (in other words, lesser escalation), it would face a war scenario in which the Chinese military retains the capability to launch air operations from its carrier.
Aircraft carriers lose some of their utility when a military opponent is of similar strength or is stronger, as the cost of retaliation for China becomes much greater. Consequently, China’s carriers are probably not intended to serve a role against powerful countries like the U.S., Japan, or India. Instead, current and future Chinese carriers will likely be deployed in scenarios involving smaller countries that do not have the ability to sink them (e.g., the Philippines), or that do have such capabilities (e.g., Taiwan) but are extremely reluctant to escalate conflict in a manner that would prompt a devastating PLA retaliation. Sending thousands of lives to the bottom of the ocean, and along with them billions of dollars and a nation’s pride, would be the surest way to invite such a response from China. The symbolic and psychological value of an aircraft carrier, and the cost of targeting it, is ultimately its best protection, and the reason why in certain scenarios, carriers will continue to play an important role.