02 April 2012

China’s Navy on the Horizon

Capt. Carl Otis Schuster, U.S. Navy (Ret.), China’s Navy on the Horizon,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 138.4 (April 2012).

China’s official acknowledgment of its first aircraft carrier’s sea trials triggered ongoing speculation in the media about its significance. Some reports assert that the ship is named Shi Lang, after the Manchu admiral who conquered Taiwan, but despite announcing it may be accepted into the fleet by year’s end, Beijing has not released its name as of this printing. Built on an empty Russian Admiral Kuznetsov-class carrier hull, she is equipped with Chinese propulsion, combat, and weapon systems. Unlike the Kuznetsov, however, no large-scale missile system is installed under her flight deck, ensuring that she will have a large air wing. But she lacks embarked antisubmarine (ASW) and airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, meaning she does not have the capabilities to match America’s nuclear carriers. Nonetheless, the vessel’s commissioning will elevate the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) into the ranks of the world’s great naval powers.

More important, once fully operational, her power-projection potential will eclipse that of all other regional navies. For those countries—and the United States—that fact has political-strategic implications far beyond the ship’s individual capabilities. China’s Defense Ministry said the carrier will be used for research and training and does not reflect a change to an offensive naval strategy. Despite such assurances, few Southeast Asia nations will take her commissioning lightly, given China’s unresolved disputes with neighbors over conflicting claims in the South China Sea and China’s assertion that those waters constitute its national territory. Taiwan’s leaders in particular will monitor the carrier’s operations closely, whatever her name—but they will see particular significance in her deployment if indeed she is named Shi Lang. All that being said, China’s first carrier is more important for what she portends than what she can do within the next few years. …

For the article cited here, see Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “China Deploys World’s First Long-Range, Land-Based ‘Carrier Killer’: DF-21D Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) Reaches ‘Initial Operational Capability’ (IOC),” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 14 (26 December 2010).