Big Ships for Beijing?
Analysts Can’t Agree Whether China Wants or Needs Carriers
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
Will China operate planes from an aircraft carrier in the next decade?
It’s a two-part question that starts with this one: Does Beijing want to do so?
Western observers who believe the answer is yes point to China’s rising desire to project force into sea lanes, especially to protect the flow of oil from the Arabian Gulf through the Strait of Malacca.
But other analysts disagree.
“Whilst China was interested in building a carrier, it had shelved the plan for a variety of reasons,” said Ian Storey, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu.
Storey said Beijing has developed other ways to address the strategic vulnerability of relying on Middle East oil.
“If China is interested in protecting its ships and SLOCs [sea lanes of communication], then it can do that without carriers — frigates, destroyers and subs,” he said.
“However, one or two carrier battle groups would be useful in this regard, and I suspect that that is China’s long-term goal. Put it this way — China’s Malacca dilemma is an added incentive for the PLAN [People’s Liberation Army Navy] to acquire aircraft carrier capability, and I am sure senior Chinese admirals are making that argument these days.”
U.S. academic and government analysts are split. Some predict a Chinese aircraft carrier by 2015; others say it will not happen until after 2020, according to the Pentagon’s recent report to Congress, “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2006.”
Bernard Cole, a China Navy specialist at the National War College in Washington, said China may first deploy 12,000-ton ships carrying about a dozen aircraft within a decade.
“The next step, within 15 years, would be carriers of approximately 30,000 to 40,000 tons, similar in size to the U.S. LHA/LHD class,” Cole said. “These probably would not be equipped with catapults/arresting gear but would still be very capable ships.”
Chinese media reports indicate that Beijing is divided on the topic.
In 2002, a report from China’s official People’s Daily newspaper expressed reservations.
“Is China capable of manufacturing a sophisticated system of aircraft carrier not considering political and financial reasons?” the piece asked. “Experts are divided over discussions regarding technological capability. Some give positive answers, saying that although lacking real experience on aircraft carriers, China has long been capable of building over 100,000-ton civil vessels as well as military ships on a medium and small scale.”
More recently, a May 1 report in the Hong Kong-based Ching Pao reported that Chinese military authorities were unsure of the effectiveness of an aircraft carrier in future war scenarios.
“The Chinese high echelon has accepted the opinion on building aircraft carriers; however, we should not place unrealistically high expectations on the construction of building aircraft carriers,” the article said.
Pentagon adviser Michael Pillsbury said Chinese officials had traveled to Brazil, Britain, France and Italy in the past decade to study aircraft carriers.
“A public debate in China regarding the usefulness of aircraft carriers has been going on for a decade,” Pillsbury said.
A Working Carrier
The second part of the question is: How would China acquire a carrier? Buy a foreign ship? Refurbish the antiquated Soviet-built Varyag, purchased from the Ukraine in 1998? Or build a new one?
The first EU arms embargo makes it unlikely that China could buy one from Europe, and a U.S.-built ship is out of the question.
China certainly owns plenty of old foreign carriers, but none appear to be good candidates for refurbishing. Chinese purchases of old carriers include:
• 1985: China purchased the 17,000-ton Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne to study its catapults, according to media reports.
• 1998: The Russian-built Minsk was purchased by a Chinese company for scrap iron and turned into a tourist venture at Dapeng Bay, Guangdong Province.
• 2000: The Tianma Shipbuilding Co. bought the Russian-built Kiev, the former flagship of the Russian North Fleet, as a tourism venture, and it is now located at the Beiyang Recreation Harbor at Tianjin.
But no purchase has received more media attention and public fascination than the 67,500-ton Russian carrier Varyag, bought in 1998. Long dogged by uncertainty and mishap, the ship was begun in 1985, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, ownership was transferred to the Ukraine, which halted construction in 1992 after completing 70 percent of the ship.
It is clear Chinese naval engineers and designers have seriously studied the Varyag, reported the recent DoD report on China. Of all the aircraft carriers purchased by China, the Varyag is the only one under guard by the PLAN.
“By studying the Varyag and consulting extensively with its designers, China can pocket that investment and leapfrog into a next-generation design,” said Richard Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Aircraft and Tactics
The People’s Daily has also noted that China has no carrier-based aircraft, though it does operate helicopters adaptable to many different naval warfare missions.
Options include buying the carrier-based Russian Su-33 (Su-27K) or modifying the Chengdu J-10 multirole fighter, said Fisher.
“Many indicators also point toward an ongoing effort at Chengdu to develop a carrier-capable version of the J-10, most likely based on the advanced version of this fighter that will feature a thrust-vectored engine,” Fisher said.
He also said China was likely developing a family of twin-turboprop carrier aircraft, similar to the old U.S. S-1/E-1 Tracker/Tracer family, for anti-submarine missions and carrier resupply.
There are signs China is preparing to develop the tactical skills necessary for an aircraft carrier.
China’s Central Military Commission is sending the PLAN North Sea Fleet’s helicopter training ship, the 82 Shichang Hao, to the South Sea Fleet so that missile destroyers and frigates can practice with an aviation-oriented ship, according to a June 4 report in the Chinese-language Hong Kong-based newspaper Ta Kung Pao.
“The formation will train on a Chinese framework on maritime carrier comprehensive operation before China’s new aircraft carrier enters active service,” the paper reported.