03 May 2011

From the Sea: PLA Doctrine and the Employment of Sea-Based Airpower

Daniel J. Kostecka, From the Sea: PLA Doctrine and the Employment of Sea-Based Airpower,” Naval War College Review 64.3 (Summer 2011): 10-30.

Despite an impressive naval modernization over the past two decades, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) currently possesses little in the way of force-projection capabilities. The development of force projection through the acquisition of such platforms as aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships is essential if PLAN forces, as they modernize and mature, are to engage in the full spectrum of traditional and nontraditional operations needed to protect Chinese interests, regionally and abroad. At this point, the most visible manifestations of the PLAN’s desire to possess this type of force-projection capability are its Type 071 amphibious transport dock (LPD), commissioned in November 2007; a second Type 071 hull now under construction; and, most significant, the ongoing refurbishment of an incomplete, Soviet-built, Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier at Dalian. These ships represent core elements of the PLAN’s future force projection requirements. Along with follow-on platforms, they will provide the capability to employ sea-based airpower and conduct expeditionary operations beyond the range of older and less capable amphibious vessels, as well as that of land-based air cover.

However, China’s desire to possess modern force-projection capabilities for its navy is also the source of considerable speculation and misunderstanding. This is particularly true for China’s aircraft carrier program. Speculation runs from forward-leaning predictions that by the early 2020s China could have as many as five aircraft carriers, including two nuclear-powered hulls, to a recent prediction from an Australian policy research think tank that despite evidence to the contrary the Chinese are not serious about building aircraft carriers, because it would be “dumb for them to do so.”

China’s LPD program has not generated anything like the controversy accompanying the aircraft carrier. However, it has received a significant amount of attention, if for no other reason than the type represents a modern, long-range expeditionary platform that—unlike most of China’s other naval acquisitions of the past two decades—seems to have been designed from the outset for missions other than supporting an attack on Taiwan. Also, while smaller and much less capable than a true aircraft carrier, China’s single Type 071 LPD is the PLAN’s first true deck-aviation ship, in that unlike destroyers and frigates, it can operate a larger number and more diverse mix of helicopters against a larger set of missions. Modern force projection is essential for China to have a sustained naval presence away from Chinese waters, whether in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, or anywhere else. Additionally, authoritative publications from the PLAN, as well as the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) National Defense University and Academy of Military Sciences, provide clues regarding how the navy intends to employ these platforms in both traditional and nontraditional ways. It is necessary to understand China’s future force-projection capabilities, in light of PLA doctrine, to predict the types of missions that Chinese aircraft carriers and large amphibious vessels are likely to be given. …