“Showing off the Hardware: China’s First Aircraft-Carrier Bares its Teeth,” The Economist, 19 January 2017.
For Admiral Wu Shengli, the commander of China’s navy since 2006, it must have been a sweet swansong to mark his imminent retirement. In November China announced that its first and only aircraft-carrier, the Liaoning, was combat ready. On December 24th its navy duly dispatched an impressive-looking carrier battle-group with three escorting destroyers, a couple of frigates, a corvette and a refuelling ship. It sailed from the northern port of Qingdao down through the Miyako Strait, past Taiwan and into the South China Sea. …
China’s deployment of an aircraft-carrier is not a military game-changer. But it is a conspicuous symbol of the country’s ambitions as a maritime and global power. The Liaoning has been a crucial building block for the navy in its evolution from a coastal defence force into what is now a modern navy that China uses to assert its (contested) maritime claims in the East and South China Seas. Within the next 25 years China expects its navy to become a powerful blue-water fleet that can guard China’s sea lanes of communication against any aggressor, push the US Navy beyond the “second island chain” far out into the Pacific… and protect the country’s far-flung commercial interests.
To that end, probably around 2004, China made up its mind that it must have aircraft-carriers. A second, indigenously designed one, based on the Liaoning but with the latest radar and space for more aircraft, is nearing completion at the northern port of Dalian. Many analysts believe that a third such vessel, larger and more complex, is under construction in Shanghai. Andrew Erickson of the US Naval War College says Admiral Wu adopted a “crawl, walk, run” approach to developing a carrier capability, recognising the difficulties involved. Carrier operations are inherently dangerous—America lost 8,500 aircrew in the 40 years to 1988 on its way to reaching what Mr Erickson calls its current “gold standard” of carrier expertise. …
It is not clear how many carriers China plans to build. As a rule of thumb, you need three to be certain of having one at sea all the time. Mr Erickson says that some analysts in China have been suggesting a fleet as large as six. Mr Singer thinks it is possible that China’s carriers will one day match the capability of American ones. Mr Erickson says that while China can copy a lot, without combat experience and “tribal knowledge” passed from one crew to another, it will find it hard to attain that level.
China, ironically, has done more than any other country to sow doubts about whether carriers are worth all the effort and expense, by developing shore-based anti-ship ballistic missiles, such as the DF-21D and DF-26, known as “carrier killers”. Submarines are less vulnerable, but highly visible ships bristling with weaponry are still badges of pride for aspiring great powers like China. As in America, the view in China that carriers and status go together will be hard to change.
Andrew S. Erickson, “How Does China’s First Aircraft Carrier Stack Up?” interview for China Power Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 20 April 2016.
My Key Quotations:
“Already with China’s so-called starter carrier, Liaoning, there is significant potential in the near future to take it overseas for some basic naval diplomacy . . . and this will already have tremendous symbolic and psychological effects.”
“The problem here for China is that deck aviation is really not so much about the ship that supports everything . . . it’s really the complex system of systems of aviation operations operating off the carrier. That’s the key value of the carrier. That’s the key to the carrier’s ability to project power in the form of the ability to conduct actual strikes. And that’s where it’s very hard to get anywhere close to the U.S.-type gold standard.”
Related Multimedia Report:
The entry of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, into service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) attracted considerable attention from both the Chinese press and military observers around the world. For some, the Liaoning was a symbol of China’s global power; for others, it represented a significant first step toward a more muscular and assertive Chinese navy.
Originally built as a “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser” for the Soviet Navy, the ship was laid down as the Riga and renamed the Varyag in 1990. A Chinese travel agency purchased the unfinished hull in 1998, and three years later the ship was towed from the Ukraine to China, where it underwent extensive modernization of its hull, radar, and electronics systems. After years of refits, the Liaoning was commissioned into the PLAN in September 2012 as a training ship unassigned to any of the Navy’s three major fleets. Two months after the ship was commissioned, the PLAN conducted its first carrier-based takeoff and landings. Although the Chinese have made significant progress in developing their carrier program, it will be several years before a carrier air regiment is fully integrated into the PLAN. Significant questions about the Liaoning’s capabilities and future prospects remain, the most important of which may be what the Liaoning means for the rise of China as a global power. …
- Andrew S. Erickson et. al, “Beijing’s ‘Starter Carrier’ and Future Steps: Alternatives and Implications,” Naval War College Review Vol 65, No. 1 (2012).
- Andrew S. Erickson and Andrew R. Wilson, “China’s Aircraft Carrier Dilemma,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 59, No. 4 (2006).
- James Holmes, “Will China Become an Aircraft Carrier Superpower?,” Foreign Policy, January 21, 2016.
- Ronald O’Rouke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities – Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 7-5700, RL33153, March 31, 2015.
- “The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century,” Office of Naval Intelligence (Suitland, Maryland: Office of Naval Intelligence, 2015).
Here are selected minutes from the interview:
ADDITIONAL PUBLICATIONS, PRESENTATIONS, AND MEDIA SOURCES:
Andrew S. Erickson and Capt. Christopher P. Carlson, USNR (Ret.), “Sustained Support: the PLAN Evolves its Expeditionary Logistics Strategy,” Jane’s Navy International, 9 March 2016.
- Projecting force
- Sustaining forces
- Special delivery
- Remote maintenance
- Supporting facilities
- UNDERWAY REPLENISHMENT
As China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy seeks to support sustained operations at distance, Andrew Erickson and Christopher Carlson discuss its strategy and tools for supporting this new international presence
China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has stepped out onto the international scene in recent years with sustained deployments of counter-piracy escort task groups to the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. These deployments, numbering 22 and counting since 26 December 2008, have enabled the PLAN to sustain presence around the Horn of Africa and even deploy onwards into the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. China is now looking to bolster this strategic presence in both scope and scale by investing in supply ships, using Chinese commercial shipping lines, and exploiting its emerging access to commercial ports around the world as it seeks to provide logistics support to deployed naval vessels.
China has never had a sustained overseas presence or foreign basing footprint. Yet it is building a fleet that will enable the PLAN to deploy not only at high intensity in China’s immediate periphery (‘Near Seas’, including the Yellow, East, and South China seas), but also with gradually increasing tempo and regularity throughout the Asia-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean (‘Far Seas’ operations). This ongoing effort, if Beijing seeks for it to become more continuous in nature, will require greater power projection capabilities, as well as enhanced logistics support, and maybe even a long-term presence on foreign soil.
Drawing on the US Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) traditional definition of power projection (as employed in Joint Publication 1-02, Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, as amended through 2013) – to rapidly and effectively deploy and sustain forces – the foremost means of China’s power projection in both respects lies in its navy and in the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLAN air forces, and in their ability to operate at distance over time. Today, as the necessary force structure to support Chinese objectives vis-à-vis the Near Seas has largely been achieved and China’s shipbuilding and aviation industries have demonstrated an ability to produce advanced ships and aircraft, an effort is under way to progressively increase the numbers of some of the more capable platforms that could be used for Far Seas operations. These include area air-defence destroyers and frigates, replenishment vessels, and fighter aircraft – the last of which will need aircraft carriers or foreign bases to fly from. As the US Navy (USN) knows only too well, expanding bluewater presence and doing more things in more places at once requires a larger, better-supported fleet. …
Sam LaGrone, “China’s First Domestic Aircraft Carrier Almost Certainly Under Construction,” USNI News, 30 September 2015.
Sean O’Connor, “China May Be Building First Indigenous Carrier,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 24 September 2015.
Andrew Scobell, Michael McMahon, and Cortez A. Cooper III, “China’s Aircraft Carrier Program: Drivers, Developments, Implications,” Naval War College Review 69.4 (Fall 2015): 64-79.
Andrew S. Erickson, “Asia Get Ready: Is This China’s Vision of Future Aircraft Carrier Designs?” The National Interest, 8 December 2014.
For a survey of potential Chinese deck aviation development futures, see Andrew S. Erickson, “A Work in Progress: China’s Development of Carrier Strike,”Jane’s Navy International, 19 June 2014.
Andrew S. Erickson, “Watching China’s Carrier Dream Materialize–Via Music Video!” China Analysis from Original Sources 以第一手资料研究中国, 22 April 2014.
Analysis of possible indigenous carrier construction approaches is offered in Andrew S. Erickson and Gabe Collins, “China Carrier Demo Module Highlights Surging Navy,” The National Interest, 6 August 2013.
For a comprehensive analysis of Chinese deck aviation development, see Andrew S. Erickson, Abraham M. Denmark, and Gabriel Collins, “Beijing’s ‘Starter Carrier’ and Future Steps: Alternatives and Implications,” Naval War College Review 65.1 (Winter 2012): 14-54.
Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “China Aircraft Carrier Style! Assessing the First Takeoff and Landing,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 27 November 2012.
For a video presentation, see Andrew S. Erickson, “Chinese Aircraft Carrier Update,” presented in “Session 1: Developments in Aircraft Carriers,” at “Maritime Security Challenges (MSC) 2012” conference, Maritime Forces Pacific, Canadian Navy, Victoria, Canada, 2 October 2012.
For other recent analysis, see Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins, “The Calm Before the Storm: China’s About to Find Out How Hard it is to Run an Aircraft Carrier,” Foreign Policy, 26 September 2012.
Click here for another recent assessment concerning Liaoning that references statements by important PLAN-affiliated experts: Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “Introducing the ‘Liaoning’: China’s New Aircraft Carrier and What it Means,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 25 September 2012.
For further background on Chinese aircraft carrier development, see also:
Historical highlights from articles listed below, offered in Andrew S. Erickson, “China’s Ministry of National Defense: 1st Aircraft Carrier “Liaoning” Handed Over to PLA Navy,” China Analysis from Original Sources, 25 September 2012.
Explanation of naming in Andrew S. Erickson, “China Will Name its First Aircraft Carrier ex-Varyag “Liaoning”: PRC State Media Portal,” China Analysis from Original Sources, 10 September 2012.
Coverage of the ex-Varyag’s sea trials offered in Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “China Realizes Carrier Dream,” The Diplomat, 10 August 2011.
The longer report on which that post is based is Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “China’s ‘Starter Carrier’ Goes to Sea,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 43 (9 August 2011).
An early assessment of the larger implications of China’s deck aviation development offered in Abraham M. Denmark, Andrew S. Erickson, and Gabriel Collins, “Should We Be Afraid of China’s New Aircraft Carrier? Not yet.,” Foreign Policy, 27 June 2011.
Relevant defense industrial factors discussed in Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “LNG Carriers to Aircraft Carriers? Assessing the potential for crossover between civilian and military shipbuilding in China,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 12 (18 December 2010).
For analysis on aircraft that may eventually fly off China’s aircraft carrier, see Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “‘Flying Shark’ Gaining Altitude: How Might New J-15 Strike Fighter Improve China’s Maritime Air Warfare Ability?” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 38 (8 June 2011).
For related analysis on drivers and constraints concerning Chinese deck aviation, see Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “The ‘Flying Shark’ Prepares to Roam the Seas: Strategic Pros and Cons of China’s Aircraft Carrier Program,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 35 (18 May 2011).