17 June 2011

Near-Term Missions for China’s Maiden Aircraft Carrier

Aaron Shraberg, Near-Term Missions for China’s Maiden Aircraft Carrier,” Jamestown China Brief, 11.11 (17 June 2011).

As China’s maiden aircraft carrier nears its sea trials one question that evades analysts’ minds is why China is building a carrier. For many of the carrier’s potential missions: from “recovering” Taiwan; to “solving” the Paracel, Spratly and Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands disputes; to “safeguarding” China’s Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC), a fully operational carrier is considered logistically unattainable, at least in the near term. While several of the above missions may figure into a long-term strategic calculus, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) must first undergo an extensive period of trials, testing and training before the ship is mission-ready to the extent that it will be useful for China’s most vexing regional and international flashpoints. Yet, the meaning the Chinese officials, experts, press and even everyday Chinese people assign to an aircraft carrier seems to imply otherwise. …

Broadly speaking, for a Taiwan Strait scenario, Western analysts have pointed out that a carrier “would have little role in a near-term Taiwan scenario … as land based PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and Naval Aviation aircraft could probably handle all of the required air operations across the narrow Taiwan Strait”….

The real weight of the carrier program on the balance of power in Asia is several years coming, at the earliest after the carrier completes its initial sea trials and its airmen are trained. During this time, developing joint-operation capabilities and maintenance for the ship and its air-wing will cost China more time and money. Meanwhile, to China’s neighbors, the carrier’s presence is clear and present. A recent rise in “sea denial” strategies by Southeast Asian nations, perhaps in response to China’s attempt at “sea control” as symbolized in the maiden carrier, is evidenced by an increase in submarine purchases by Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. Thus, the actual mission-effectiveness of a carrier decreases, especially for China’s most vexing regional flashpoints, as the region responds. Meanwhile, China’s maiden carrier is being outpaced in the face of new U.S. technologies such as jet-powered killer drones. Against this dynamic backdrop, a “70-year dream” is now coming true, due in no small part to the CCP, and the Chinese government can continue to stoke up the national pride of its own people. The symbol of the carrier allows them to do that. Yet, the massive investment in time, technology, talent and money means that a lot is riding on the carrier. China watchers and military experts will continue to monitor the maiden carrier, a dream no longer deferred, to better understand the PLAN’s real capabilities, and China’s expectations for this and any future carriers.