Chinese Work Toward Carrier Capabilities
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI — China’s naval confidence got a boost over the last six months with leaked plans to build aircraft carriers, participation in patrols against Somali pirates, harassment of a U.S. Navy surveillance ship, and the 60th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
The PLAN has 27 destroyers, 48 frigates, 54 diesel attack submarines and six nuclear attack submarines, according to the 2009 Pentagon report on China’s military modernization, making it the Pacific’s largest naval force after the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Announced or hinted at are plans to build aircraft carriers, longrange support ships, and submarines that can launch ballistic and cruise missiles.
The purpose of this growing fleet has been hotly debated.
Some fear China will attempt to push the U.S. Navy out of the first island chain, then challenge its dominance of the Pacific. Chinese leaders and PLAN officials say their country’s economic and political power depends on sea access and control.
The report said China appears to be replacing its Offshore Active Defense strategy, which stresses coastal defense within the “first island chain,” with Far Sea Defense, which allows for operations beyond China’s claimed 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and “multidimensional precision attacks” beyond the island chain.
Many Western observers say China intends to build one or more aircraft carriers. Reports out of China suggest a carrier build will begin in 2010, with plans to build nuclearpowered carriers in 2020, and justification for the construction of aircraft carriers has increased in the Chinese media over the past six months.
Andrei Chang, a China military specialist at Kanwa Information Center, said infrastructure and security improvements at the Changxing Island Shipyard in Shanghai suggest plans to build a carrier at the yard’s third dock.
But size and timeline remain a matter of debate.
Chang said China plans to build a medium-sized aircraft carrier similar to Russia’s 67,000-ton Admiral Kuznetsov, which can carry about 15 fighter aircraft.
That size makes sense to Thomas Kane, a China military specialist at Britain’s University of Hull.
“I would liken the big Chinese carrier to the Xia nuclear submarine: impressive in principle, likely to be problematic in practice,” Kane said. “I would liken a smaller Chinese carrier to China’s Kilo submarine: familiar technology but, if used correctly, a definite asset.” He said a large carrier would be most useful for testing and diplomacy. But he cautioned that a rush to build a carrier of any size has risks. “Rushing might also force the PLAN to compromise on things like developing an effective battle group to support the carrier, and procuring the necessary electronic gear to help members of that battle group function effectively,” Kane said.
Former U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Eric McVadon, a consultant on East Asia security affairs, predicted that China’s first carrier would most likely be a medium-sized test vessel. Judging by previous Chinese Navy shipbuilding programs, he said, China will “use and evaluate it, then build about two more.” However, operating a carrier will be difficult and expensive, and PLAN is not expected to project force with a carrier in the near future.
“Operating a carrier will be harder than expected — and more expensive,” said McVadon, now the director of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Washington-based Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis. “Progress toward a real operational capability will be slow, if China’s pace with assimilation of major weapon systems is the model.
“For example, it will likely be a long time before a carrier is ready to send armed airplanes in quantity on a complex mission, to be recovered at night in bad weather and high seas while needing to defend against enemy missiles,” he said.
One or two destroyers and a frigate operating in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific are “largely blind and without reach.” However, with an aircraft carrier, China can provide sea-lane security a great distance from its shores, McVadon said.
“Add a small carrier, and it becomes a formidable force that has ‘eyes,’ ‘legs,’ and the ability to defend the force and deliver weapons distant from the main force.” There also is the issue of national pride. China sees India and Japan operating aircraft and helicopterborne carriers, and there is a “prestige” factor that could be motivating China’s carrier build program, McVadon said.
In addition, Chang said China is developing a carrier-based fighter jet based on the Sukhoi Su-33. China has built a copy of the Su-27 fighter in violation of an agreement with Sukhoi, the Russian aircraft maker. Attempts by Beijing to procure the Su-33 have been denied by Moscow until the Su-27 clone issue is resolved.
In March, a Chinese naval vessel and two fishing trawlers harassed the USNS Impeccable, an unarmed ocean surveillance ship. The U.S. ship was 75 miles from China’s Hainan Island, in international waters but within China’s claimed EEZ. Despite media speculation that the Impeccable incident would evolve into an armed conflict, the issue was quickly resolved.
“When the highest levels of both governments learned of the confrontation, it was brought to an abrupt end — and reinforcement plans were dropped,” McVadon said.
“The reason given was that there were important things the U.S. and China needed to do together. There remains hope for engagement, partnership and cooperation,” he said.