14 August 2011

Trefor Moss, The Diplomat: “Decoding China’s Aircraft Carrier”

Trefor Moss, Decoding China’s Aircraft Carrier,” The Diplomat, 13 August 2011.

… The first aircraft carrier in People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) history, which began sea trials earlier this week and churned up no shortage of media conjecture as it got underway, has to be understood on two different levels: the symbolic and the purposive.

Symbolically, the launching of the carrier is another installment in the narrative of China’s achievement of great-power status. …

The carrier’s military symbolism is also immensely powerful. In truth, the PLA’s most successful modernisation programmes haven’t been conventional platforms like warships so much as asymmetric weapons – systems that aim to subvert the enemy’s strengths rather than counter them with like-for-like solutions. … However, the general public – not to mention the mainstream media and presumably many politicians, including Chinese ones – have no idea what asymmetric weapons are; they are esoteric concepts that don’t capture the imagination. Aircraft carriers on the other hand, just like the flashy new fighter jet that China debuted in January, are part of the widely understood lexicon of hard power. People appreciate that a country with an aircraft carrier is part of an elite and powerful club – and that’s precisely the message that the Chinese government wants the carrier to convey both to its domestic and foreign audiences. It’s a comprehensible metaphor for China’s arrival, and something to keep the nationalists sweet. …

China’s own declaration that the ship is ‘obsolete’ and ‘for training purposes’ is probably fairly accurate. Naval analysts Andrew Erickson and Gabriel Collins have described the ex-Varyag… as a ‘starter carrier,’ and it’s hard to imagine it ever being used as a weapon of war. This is a ship with training wheels for a navy that has never operated a carrier before. The first major milestone, after confirming that the ship itself functions, will be equipping the carrier with its air arm of naval J-15 fighters, which are themselves unproven and still in development. …

…Robert Rubel of the US Naval War College writes that, while the aircraft carrier is far from obsolete, ‘the seas, at least certain areas of them, are becoming no-man’s land for surface ships’ – and remember that Chinese carriers are entering this harsh environment from the lowest possible base. It’s hard to imagine, therefore, that the PLA intends for these carriers steam into battle to be nothing more than soft targets for enemy aircraft, missiles and submarines. … As for warfare against peer or near-peer nations, China might be calculating that it’s highly unlikely ever to be involved in this type of warfare, and that its carriers’ vulnerability will therefore never be exposed. …

China has never articulated what its aircraft carriers are for, and until it does so its neighbours – already sensitive about perceived acts of aggression in the disputed zones of the South China Sea – will continue  to wonder whether Chinese power is about to be projected in their direction. ‘It’s for some of those smaller powers on China’s periphery, much more than Taiwan or the US, that this could fundamentally change things and force them to respond,’ says William Murray, a professor at the US Naval War College. ‘China is going to have a tough time persuading them.’

China’s aircraft carriers, far from being the anachronistic conventional weapons they seem, could therefore prove to be the most impressive asymmetric weapons that China has developed so far: warships that pack an almighty diplomatic punch – raising esteem at home and commanding respect abroad – but which aren’t designed for battle. Meanwhile, the United States and others will expend a huge amount of energy over the next few years trying to figure out if this is really the case.

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.