11 August 2011

Jeremy Page, Wall Street Journal: “China Flexes Naval Muscle”

Jeremy Page, China Flexes Naval Muscle,” Wall Street Journal, 11 August 2011.

China sent its first aircraft carrier to sea, a defining moment in its effort to become a top-tier naval power that seeks to challenge U.S. military supremacy in Asia and protect Chinese economic interests that now span the globe.

The carrier, based on an empty hull bought from Ukraine, sounded its horn three times as it plowed through fog around the northeastern port of Dalian early Wednesday to begin its first sea trials, according to a Twitter-like service by the state-run Xinhua news agency.

The vessel, nearly 1,000 feet long, is far from fully operational: It has a new engine, radar, guns and other equipment, but has limited combat potential without backup from other carriers and an array of support ships. For the moment, it will be used mainly for training personnel, especially fighter pilots who must learn to take off from and land on a moving deck. …

“China is a big country and we have quite a large number of ships, but they are only small ships,” said Chen Bingde, the chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, at a July news conference with Adm. Mike Mullen, the visiting U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “This is not commensurate with the status of a country like China.” …

Most importantly… the carrier will give China experience to develop indigenous carriers, the first of which some defense experts say is already under construction at a shipyard in Shanghai and could be completed as soon as 2012.

China, like most countries, considers at least three carriers necessary to be effective, so that one can be in action, one in transit and one in port for repairs and resupplies, according to Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan. But each active one requires its own carrier group, which could take at least 10 years to develop, according to retired Chinese navy Rear Adm. Yin Zhuo.

“China’s ‘starter carrier’ is of very limited military utility, and will primarily serve to confer prestige on a rising great power, help the military master basic procedures, and to project a bit of power,” wrote Andrew Erickson, an associate professor in the U.S. Naval War College’s Strategic Research Department, in a research note.

For the latest on 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.