As someone who has made a career of tracking China’s latest defense technologies, let me clue you on a little secret: Beijing’s new carrier, supposedly being built in Dalian, is no military threat for the foreseeable future. In fact, don’t even waste your time reading about whatever rumor comes next. There is a lot of Chinese hardware that could challenge U.S. primacy in the Pacific — but carriers are not one of them.
Before I get into why, a little background is in order.
China has been researching, thinking about, and studying carrier technology for decades but is just now building its own flattops. PLAN Admiral Liu Huaqing, who most scholars consider the founder of China’s aircraft carrier research program, believed that Beijing’s maritime doctrine should evolve through a two stage effort with carriers being a big part of such a plan. Step one would be “a ‘green-water active defense’ that would enable the PLAN to protect China’s territorial waters and enforce its sovereignty claims in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.” While scholars can argue the point, in many respects, China seems close to achieving such a goal. The second part would be to “develop a blue-water navy capable of projecting power into the western Pacific.” As noted back in 2004 in the US Naval War College Review (USNWCR), “aircraft carriers were needed to protect China’s sovereignty and maritime resources, especially with regard to Taiwan and the South China Sea; guard China’s sea lanes of communications as the country industrialized and increasingly became a major trading power; enable China to keep up with regional powers such as India and Japan; and give the PLAN a decisive edge in future naval warfare.”
Here the plot thickens, moving from talk to action. Beijing began purchasing old carriers to learn their secrets. In a seldom discussed episode, China in 1985 purchased the Australian carrier HMS Melbourne for scrap — or so it was thought at the time. As noted in the above piece from USNWCR, “the flight deck of the Melbourne was kept intact and used for pilot training in carrier takeoffs and landings (though a static flight deck would, of course, have been of limited utility, since it could not replicate the pitch and roll of an aircraft carrier at sea).” Years later China would purchase three ex-Soviet carriers in an effort to increase its knowledge, with the refurbished incomplete Varyag carrier being reborn as the PLAN carrier Liaoning and finally commissioned into the PLAN on September 25, 2012.
So now that you have an idea of the timeline when it comes to China’s aircraft carrier history, some readers might be wondering why I argue you should stop clicking on the latest and greatest China aircraft carrier article? Simply stated: such a plan — sinking billions of dollars into carriers and all the goodies to make them a viable weapon — is not worth it for Beijing, and chances are over the long haul China will realize it.
As recent media coverage has shown here in the U.S., carriers are big investments. Modern CVs are something one does not just throw in the water and expect military dominance. China took 27 years from the purchase of the Melbourne to launching a refurbished carrier that is not even ready for combat operations. Many pieces are needed to make a carrier a true weapon of modern war. Years are needed to develop aircraft to perform on the decks of such a carrier in times of combat — not an easy task. Chinese naval aviators will need to perform in the wildest of conditions with carriers operating in the toughest of seas and against potentially some of the world’s best navies who have decades of experience. Also, a carrier battle group must be assembled to supply and defend the most costly of capital ships — again, certainly not an easy or cheap task. China’s first carrier is nowhere near the capabilities of America’s CBG’s, and I would assume would take decades to reach such anything close to that level of competency — let alone another additional three as some reports are suggesting. Such an effort, if reporting is accurate (note: some reports have already been taken down), would be a massive undertaking which would take decades to achieve any sort of strategic edge.
Also, one must consider China’s own A2/AD strategy, which seems bent on relegating carriers into the dustbin of history — something that is achieving real results much faster than China’s own carrier investments. Beijing is pouring resources into ever more sophisticated cruise and ballistic weapon systems to push carriers and other advanced surface combatants away from its coastline. Nations like Iran and even non-state actors have noticed and are emulating such a strategy. Many have made the argument that such weapons, which in various forms have been around for decades, are slowly making carriers obsolete. Heck, they don’t call ’em “carrier-killers” for nothing.
So why would China invest in a weapon system that it is effectively trying to push into the history books and which has limited military utility for the foreseeable future?
Raw military might not be the reason behind China’s carrier push — in fact, it’s not. Beijing has other motivations beyond just pure power projection. Nothing says “great power” like an aircraft carrier and the fleet of vessels that accompany it — just like battleships did many decades ago. And not all nations of the world are arming themselves to the teeth with A2/AD missiles and systems — at least not yet. There is a certain prestige in being in the carrier club. And as long as China has the economic resources to plow into a project that does more to increase Chinese prestige than military prowess, there is some small utility in such a move — at least for now.
Yet, economics and a changing strategic environment could press China to change its tune. For at least a decade, Beijing has poured tremendous resources into its armed forces and increasingly more and more into its Navy. Thanks to a combination of a booming economy and a weakened Russia, China’s good fortunes on land have created the conditions to invest in stronger forces at sea. There is no guarantee both of those conditions are forever static. If money needs to be diverted to propping up a slowing economy or balancing against a threat from the north, it may be hard to justify billions in aircraft carrier development that will take many years to prove fruitful in combat —if ever.
“China will never build an aircraft carrier,” a senior Chinese official told a group of foreign visitors in the early 1970’s. “Aircraft carriers are tools of imperialism, and they’re like sitting ducks waiting to be shot.” For modern day China, carriers could end up being a source of pride and a shining example of its rise, just don’t expect much else.