China SignPost 洞察中国18 May 2011The ‘Flying Shark’ Prepares to Roam the Seas: Strategic pros and cons ofChina’s aircraft carrier programChina SignPost 洞察中国–“Clear, high-impact China analysis.” China’s budding aircraft carrier program is provoking energetic debate among Chinese andforeign observers. The former Ukrainian carrier Varyag (called “Shi Lang” by some ChineseInternet sources) is now being rapidly refitted in China’s Dalian Naval Shipyard. It is likely torepresent a modest and training-focused beginning to a small set of first-generation Chinesededicated deck aviation platforms, which will ultimately employ such indigenously-developedcarrier aircraft as the J-15 Flying Shark.China will likely build 3-4 hulls to permit at least one to be at sea while the others are beingused for training or being refitted. Various Chinese sources predict that the ex-Varyag could be“launched” and have some form of “harbor and sea trials” this year, perhaps as early as July. Ifso, when combined with the 11 January flight test of the J-20 stealth fighter and increasingtraining involving J-10 aircraft (a variant of which may be exported in the next few years), thiswill be a banner year for Chinese military aviation development.Against this backdrop, it is important to provide a proper strategic context and assess the likelypros and cons the development and eventual deployment of carriers holds for China. A viablecarrier capability would certainly offer the beginnings of a new level of power projectioncapability. Having a clear sense of what the strategic advantages and weaknesses of carriers arefor the PLA Navy (PLAN) will help the U.S. and other regional powers formulate more effectiveplans and strategies to help cope with China’s nascent carrier capability.Strategic Benefits1) Enhanced regional diplomatic influence. A carrier group would offer immensediplomatic benefits in providing a visible Chinese naval presence in the South China Sea,Southeast Asia, along key sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, and for humanitarian missionssuch as the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Several carrier groups would benecessary for persistent presence in these areas, however, to allow for periodicmaintenance.2) Improves China’s ability to defend its citizens and specific high profile economicinterests in volatile areas between the Red Sea and Hong Kong. Moving forward,China’s capabilities will most likely be tailored more specifically to handling threats toChinese citizens and economic interests abroad. These include non-traditional securitythreats such as piracy and terrorism, as well as internal chaos like that seen in Libya. TheU.S. military, on the other hand, possesses truly global, and highly sustainable,Clear, high-impact China analysis Issue 35Page 1
China SignPost 洞察中国18 May 2011expeditionary capabilities that enable it to fight large wars virtually anywhere in theworld.3) Carriers offer a scalable set of capabilities that can handle a range of contingencies.The platforms and operational infrastructure that make high-end missions possible canalso be scaled down to deal with non-traditional security missions like humanitarianrelief after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami or suppression of piracy off Somalia. China’smilitary is improving its capacity for dealing with smaller-scale threats that do notinvolve potential forcible entry into a hostile area, yet still involve long-rangedeployments. Improved abilities to show the flag and assist with humanitarian missionsand other military operations other than war can potentially allow a limitedexpeditionary military capacity to yield substantial diplomatic benefits for China. It isimportant, however, to understand that the PLA’s naval, air, and ground capabilities forout of area operations are likely at least 15 years away from allowing the scalableresponses to high and low-intensity threats that U.S. DoD possesses today.Strategic Drawbacks1) Carriers are inherently vulnerable. When asked during a Senate hearing how long U.S.aircraft carriers would survive in a major war against Soviet forces, Admiral HymanRickover famously replied “about two days.” In a high-intensity confrontation against afoe with submarine, air, and surface-based anti-ship capabilities, the life expectancy of aChinese carrier would probably be measured in hours. Anti-submarine warfare isperhaps the biggest weakness China that needs to rectify with respect to defendingfuture carriers. Many of China’s neighbors, including Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia,have all acquired, or have contracted for, quiet modern diesel attack submarines inrecent years and the U.S., Indian, Japanese, and Australian navies all possess highlycredible attack submarine capabilities.2) Carriers and their supporting ships and infrastructure are expensive. This realityderives in part from the carrier’s vulnerability to attack and in part from the fact that avariety of supporting systems are needed to ensure that a carrier can operate withmaximum effectiveness. If the PLAN intends to conduct credible carrier operations indistant seas, it will likely need to acquire more advanced air defense vessels, enhance itsat sea replenishment abilities, and acquire more nuclear attack submarines and betterintegrate land-based AWACS and tanker aircraft with its carrier-based aviation.Clear, high-impact China analysis Issue 35Page 2
China SignPost 洞察中国18 May 20113) An operational Chinese aircraft carrier capability is likely to unnerve China’s neighborsand potentially help to catalyze more formal regional security alignments aimed atcounterbalancing China’s growing military power. Aircraft carriers are inherently apower projection tool. China’s neighbors and strategic competitors will likely seek tohedge against what they interpret as a signal of China’s desire to have a more robustnaval capability that can transition quickly from soft to hard-power missions.4) Long lead time to actual operational capability gives potential regional adversariestime to build up countermeasures, which are often much cheaper and can be acquiredrelatively quickly. China’s large and active shipbuilding infrastructure and labor base islikely to reduce its carrier construction and outfitting costs relative to those of the U.S.,for example. Still, domestically-built carriers will be expensive—with a final cost that willlikely be equal to that of several Type 071 amphibious assault ships or helicoptercarriers, which are very well suited for handling the contingencies China is most likely toface in coming years and would arouse less fear among China’s neighbors than a full-onaircraft carrier.Potential Missions1) Asserting maritime claims in the South China Sea. This mission is certainly one forwhich a carrier embarking modern strike fighters like the J-15 would have a muchgreater military and diplomatic impact than amphibious assault ships or helicoptercarriers. For this reason alone, Chinese carrier deployments are likely to be seen asthreatening by neighboring countries like Vietnam that have competing claims in theSouth China Sea.2) Protecting/rescuing Chinese citizens and economic assets threatened by internalviolence and chaos. When the J-15 naval strike fighter enters service, it will likely beable to deliver China’s most advanced precision guided munitions and would greatlyenhance the PLAN’s ability to safeguard a rescue operation.3) Supporting sea lane security operations against low-intensity threats like the Somalipirates. Anti-piracy missions emphasize helicopters and embarked special forces forboarding vessels, but could be significantly enhanced with carrier-based dedicatedairborne reconnaissance platforms. Carrier-borne strike fighters would also give China acredible way to threaten retribution if Chinese citizens were injured or killed by pirates.4) Humanitarian relief operations. China could reap real diplomatic benefits from havingan operational carrier that could support intensive helicopter operations serving aClear, high-impact China analysis Issue 35Page 3
China SignPost 洞察中国18 May 2011disaster area like coastal zones impacted by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami or Japan’s2011 earthquake.Strategic Implications and BarometersOnce China’s ex-Varyag begins sea trials, China will likely need at least 5 years to be able toconduct carrier operations outside its immediate region. China’s carrier capabilities are likely toprimarily be aimed toward lower-intensity contingencies including maritime presence mission inthe South China Sea, suppression of piracy, protection of PRC citizens abroad, and humanitarianrelief operations. A greater focus on building carrier groups with substantial organic antisubmarine warfare capabilities and embarked strike fighters, by contrast, would suggest thatChinese leaders want to bolster their capacity to handle higher-intensity combat against majorregional navies.Clear, high-impact China analysis Issue 35Page 4
China SignPost 洞察中国18 May 2011About UsChina Signpost 洞察中国–“Clear, high-impact China analysis.” China SignPost aims to provide high-quality China analysis and policyrecommendations in a concise, accessible form for people whose lives are being affectedprofoundly by China’s political, economic, and security development. We believe that bypresenting practical, apolitical China insights we can help citizens around the world formholistic views that are based on facts, rather than political rhetoric driven by vestedinterests. We aim to foster better understanding of key internal developments in China,its use of natural resources, its trade policies, and its military and security issues.China SignPost 洞察中国 founders Dr. Andrew Erickson and Mr. Gabe Collins havemore than a decade of combined government, academic, and private sector experiencein Mandarin Chinese language-based research and analysis of China. Dr. Erickson is anassociate professor at the U.S. Naval War College and fellow in the Princeton-HarvardChina and the World Program. Mr. Collins is a commodity and security specialist focusedon China and Russia.The authors have published widely on maritime, energy, and security issues relevant toChina. An archive of their work is available at www.chinasignpost.com.The views and opinions contained in China SignPost 洞察中国 are those of the authorsalone and in no way reflect the views or policies of the authors’ employers. All relevantand eligible contents Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins, 2010-Clear, high-impact China analysis Issue 35Page 5
China SignPost 洞察中国 18 May 2011 Clear, high-impact China analysis Issue 35 Page 1 The ‘Flying Shark’ Prepares to Roam the Seas: Strategic pros and cons of China’s aircraft carrier program China SignPost 洞察中国–“Clear, high-impact China analysis.” China’s budding aircraft carrie
WEI Yi-min, China XU Ming-gang, China YANG Jian-chang, China ZHAO Chun-jiang, China ZHAO Ming, China Members Associate Executive Editor-in-Chief LU Wen-ru, China Michael T. Clegg, USA BAI You-lu, China BI Yang, China BIAN Xin-min, China CAI Hui-yi, China CAI Xue-peng, China CAI Zu-cong,
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