26 September 2012

The Calm Before the Storm: China’s About to Find Out How Hard it is to Run an Aircraft Carrier

Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins, “The Calm Before the Storm: China’s About to Find Out How Hard it is to Run an Aircraft Carrier,” Foreign Policy, 26 September 2012.

It’s finally official. China’s first aircraft carrier, named Liaoning after the province in which it was refitted, has just been commissioned and delivered to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). On Sept. 25, President Hu Jintao, who also chairs the Central Military Commission, presided over a ceremony at a Dalian naval base. Joining him were Premier Wen Jiabao, PLAN Commander Wu Shengli, and other top officials. All must have felt the weight of history on their shoulders as they witnessed the unfulfilled ambitions of their civilian and military predecessors.

This milestone was a long time coming. One of Wu’s distant predecessors had first proposed a carrier for China’s navy in 1928. At the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Premier Zhou Enlai and the PLAN commander at the time advocated carrier development, and Chairman Mao Zedong made a supportive speech in 1958. Yet their aspirations were stymied by the far more immediate priorities of domestic ideological campaigns and countering Soviet military pressure amid economic autarky and political isolationism. Subsequently, Gen. Liu Huaqing — PLAN commander from 1982 to 1987 and Central Military Commission vice chairman from 1992 to 1997 — fervently advocated carrier development and initiated studies of foreign technologies and Chinese options.

The procurement and refitting of Varyag, the Ukrainian carrier hull that served as the basis for Liaoning, was an odyssey in itself. The hull was purchased in 1998, but one-and-a-half years of Sino-Turkish negotiations were required to ensure its passage through the Bosphorus. Varyag then began a costly, storm-plagued voyage around Africa in 2001 and did not reach Dalian until 2002. China’s formal carrier program, termed “048,” was officially approved in August 2004 under Hu’s chairmanship of the CMC, making Liaoning’s recent commissioning a centerpiece of his military legacy and one of his last acts in office.

The PLAN’s possession of an aircraft carrier is a great public relations booster for the Chinese military and suggests that Chinese diplomacy will be backed by an even bigger stick in East and Southeast Asia, and possibly beyond. Yet the stick was hard to come by and remains far from a potent tool. In fact, Liaoning has not yet demonstrated the capacity for aircraft launches or landings, which is the essence of carrier operations. Why has it taken so long to get to this point, which is not itself militarily decisive? … … …

Click here for other recent assessment on Liaoning: Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “Introducing the ‘Liaoning’: China’s New Aircraft Carrier and What it Means,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 25 September 2012.

For further background on Chinese aircraft carrier development, see also:

Historical highlights from articles listed below, offered in Andrew S. Erickson, “China’s Ministry of National Defense: 1st Aircraft Carrier “Liaoning” Handed Over to PLA Navy,” China Analysis from Original Sources, 25 September 2012.

Explanation of naming in Andrew S. Erickson, “China Will Name its First Aircraft Carrier ex-Varyag “Liaoning”: PRC State Media Portal,” China Analysis from Original Sources, 10 September 2012.

Overall analysis offered in Andrew S. Erickson, Abraham M. Denmark, and Gabriel Collins, “Beijing’s ‘Starter Carrier’ and Future Steps: Alternatives and Implications,” Naval War College Review 65.1 (Winter 2012): 14-54.

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

The longer report on which that post is based is Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “China’s ‘Starter Carrier’ Goes to Sea,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 43 (9 August 2011).

An early assessment of the larger implications of China’s deck aviation development offered in 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.

Relevant defense industrial factors discussed in 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) 12 (18 December 2010).

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

For analysis on aircraft that may eventually fly off China’s aircraft carrier, 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) 38 (8 June 2011).

For related analysis on 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) 35 (18 May 2011).