15 August 2011

Bradley Perrett, Aviation Week: “What Carrier Means In China Military Plans”

Bradley Perrett, What Carrier Means In China Military Plans,” Aviation Week, 12 August 2011.

The Chinese military is either confident that it can already win a battle in the Taiwan Strait, or it is confident that it can keep winning the budget battles back in Beijing. … while the armed forces reckon much more military power is needed to force Taiwanese reunification—and to persuade the U.S. to keep out of the fight—they expect that future funding will be enough to do that and more. …

… Varyag has been fitted for combat—with self-defense surface-to-air missile launchers, a profusion of domes that must cover antennas for communications systems and sensors and, most notably, a phased-array radar. To integrate those systems, a capable command system must be installed deep in the hull. It seems unlikely that a navy that expected to take, say, 10 years to prepare the ship for combat would spend so heavily now on such costly equipment, especially since better systems would be available later.

It is also clear that China has not skimped on propulsion. Thick exhaust from the funnel during engine tests indicates that Varyag is not fitted with the gas turbines that Western and Japanese navies now routinely use for fast ships—and yet the exhaust color is too light for diesel propulsion, a heavy but inexpensive and efficient choice commonly made for ships of moderate speed. Diesels were an alternative that Chinese builders, expert in merchant ship construction, could easily have executed had the navy not wanted much speed, says U.S. Naval War College Prof. Andrew Erickson.

So the installation—reportedly built with Ukrainian help—is evidently a powerful steam-turbine plant, matched to the high-speed lines of the hull. Varyag’s sister ship, the Russian Kuznetsov, has a 147,000-kw (197,000-hp) steam-turbine plant that propels the ship at about 30 kt., compared with the 25-plus kt. officially stated for the two otherwise comparable ships that Britain is building. U.S. carriers are capable of more than 30 kt.

Erickson stresses the value of speed to a ship that, like Varyag, has a deck configuration requiring aircraft to use the mode of operation known as short takeoff but arrested recovery (Stobar). “Given the limitations of Stobar on aircraft weight, the more wind over the deck the better,” he says. …

While Varyag and follow-on carriers would be helpful in intimidating rivals to China’s claims on the South China Sea, analysts Erickson, Bitzinger and Townshend agree that the most likely reason for China to build aircraft carriers is probably not far from the vague justification that the country is offering: Lots of other nations have them.

Aircraft carriers have proven useful to other countries. Moreover, China is a rising power, with a long view of history. It will want carrier aviation eventually, so it might as well start working on it. …

For coverage of the ex-Varyag’s sea trials, see Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “China Realizes Carrier Dream,” The Diplomat, 10 August 2011.

For the longer analysis on which that post is based, see Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “China’s ‘Starter Carrier’ Goes to Sea,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 43 (9 August 2011).

For an assessment of the larger implications of China’s deck aviation development, see 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.

For operational aspects of China’s first carrier-capable aircraft, 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), No. 38 (7 June 2011).

For 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), No. 35 (18 May 2011).

For relevant defense industrial factors, see 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), No. 12 (18 December 2010).

For an early assessment of Chinese aircraft carrier options, see Andrew S. Erickson and Andrew R. Wilson, “China’s Aircraft Carrier Dilemma,” Naval War College Review, 59. 4 (Autumn 2006): 13-45.