May 9, 2017
Last week, China launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier in the northern port city of Dalian. Its first carrier, the Liaoning, was built in the former USSR but was laid up for years when the Soviet Union’s military lapsed during the bad old days of president Boris Yeltsin. The Chinese bought it, rebuilt it and modernized it, putting a small carrier air wing aboard it. It deploys regularly around the East and South China seas.
The second carrier is quite similar to the first, about half the size of the older Nimitz-class carriers that are the mainstay of the U.S. Navy’s carrier strike forces, but not nuclear-propelled. It now will be fitted out, undergo sea trials and probably join the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) by 2020.
In some ways it is quite curious that China is intent on developing a small carrier fleet. It is likely this second carrier will be joined in due course by a third and possibly a fourth and that the newer carriers will be larger, with straight, rather than “ski-jump” flight decks. In the past the Chinese have downplayed the existence of the powerful U.S. carrier fleet, claiming that in this day of precision-guided bombs and anti-ship missiles, an aircraft carrier is nothing more than a bigger target to be destroyed by conventional air or missile attack.
The Chinese are surely correct about the vulnerability of aircraft carriers, even with up-to-date defensive systems. In the Second World War, the British, Americans and Japanese suffered significant carrier losses and although both offence and defensive firepower today way outstretches that of 70 years ago, the fact of surface ships’ vulnerability in the face of an equivalently equipped enemy is no less true.
Why then are the Chinese intent on building what will be the second largest carrier fleet in the world? Power projection pure and simple, especially in the oceans and seas that are closest and most important to China.
An aircraft carrier is a power-projection, offensive weapons system. Its true purpose, going right back to the first carriers or carrier-like ships of the First World War, was to extend the fleet’s hitting power well beyond the range of the big guns aboard the battleships and battle cruisers of the day. Before that long ago war ended, British aircraft launched from flight decks mounted aboard conventional surface ships bombed German Zeppelin facilities on the North Sea’s coast.
Carriers operate best in a permissive environment. This means that the U.S., for example, can use carriers to launch strikes against enemies which cannot retaliate against the carrier strike group, but that a carrier’s value would be much less in an armed conflict with another major power. A carrier strike against a Syrian target would be a very different event than a carrier strike against a Chinese port or a Chinese fleet.
The Chinese know all this and yet have decided to put considerable resources into the development of these seaborne assets.
The answer to why the Chinese have embarked on this course is simple. China has, for at least a decade, been developing naval assets not simply for the defence of Chinese coastal waters, but to project power around the rims of the South China Sea, the East China Sea and even the Indian Ocean. In doing so, China believes — likely correctly —that its diplomatic power will be considerably enhanced without having to fire a single shot.
Thus, the carriers should be seen as the flip side of China’s reefs that have been turned into naval and air bases and which now dot the outline of its claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea. One other consideration must be kept in mind: although the U.S. has 10 Nimitz-class carriers, their mission is to cover the world’s oceans. The Chinese will eventually outnumber the U.S. in carriers in the waters that really matter to it.