19 June 2014

A Work in Progress: China’s Development of Carrier Strike

Andrew S. Erickson, “A Work in Progress: China’s Development of Carrier Strike,” Jane’s Navy International, 19 June 2014.

Professor Andrew Erickson reviews China’s strategic goals and the military capabilities it must master as it seeks to generate the strike power that is central to the effectiveness of a modern, advanced aircraft carrier force

A core element of China’s future naval strategy is the development of a successful deck aviation capability. Chinese sources point to a burgeoning programme, growing from the possession of its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, to more than three indigenously-built carriers operating next-generation carrier-capable aircraft. Developing such a capability is the only way for China to achieve robust sea control and long-range maritime power projection.

As part of an approach that is simultaneously incremental, ad hoc, and long-term, China has developed its aircraft carrier programme from scratch, purchasing (through a private company) from Ukraine and then refitting Liaoning, and also reverse engineering and upgrading the J-15 ‘Flying Shark’ carrier-based fighter aircraft from an illicitly-acquired Russian Su-33 ‘Flanker D’.

China wants to develop aircraft carriers for numerous reasons, including to deliver the prestige its leaders and people believe befits a great power. Particularly within military circles, China is also ultimately seeking to transform its armed forces operationally and to develop the power projection capabilities of a major navy with at least some degree of global reach. In strategic terms, a carrier gives China’s decision-makers options in its various maritime and island disputes, and also the ability to give far greater protection to key sea lanes through which the majority of Chinese trade passes. This ability to provide public goods and export security is part of the ‘new historic missions’ bestowed upon the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2004 by then leader Hu Jintao.

A 5 June 2014 report from the US Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) on China’s military developments projected that China’s first indigenously constructed carriers “would most likely perform such missions as patrolling economically important sea lanes, and conducting naval diplomacy, regional deterrence, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief.” Other missions beyond the ‘near seas’ (namely the South China Sea, but also the Yellow and East China seas) include “protecting important sea lanes from terrorism, maritime piracy, and foreign interdiction.”

Additional analysis:

Andrew S. Erickson, “Watching China’s Carrier Dream Materialize–Via Music Video!China Analysis from Original Sources 以第一手资料研究中国, 22 April 2014.

Analysis of possible indigenous carrier construction approaches is offered in Andrew S. Erickson and Gabe Collins, “China Carrier Demo Module Highlights Surging Navy,” The National Interest, 6 August 2013.

For a comprehensive analysis of Chinese deck aviation development, see 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.

Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “China Aircraft Carrier Style! Assessing the First Takeoff and Landing,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 27 November 2012.

For a video presentation, see Andrew S. Erickson, “Chinese Aircraft Carrier Update,” presented in “Session 1: Developments in Aircraft Carriers,” at “Maritime Security Challenges (MSC) 2012” conference, Maritime Forces Pacific, Canadian Navy, Victoria, Canada, 2 October 2012.

For other recent analysis, see 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.

Click here for another recent assessment concerning Liaoning that references statements by important PLAN-affiliated experts: 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.

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).