In The Media

China rises over the Pacific: At 66,000 tons, China's first super carrier is being watched closely by Canada's defence analysts

by Simon Kent

Toronto Sun
May 5, 2012

TORONTO - Catapult assisted takeoff from the heaving deck of an aircraft carrier is not for the faint hearted.

I know that for a fact. I’m as faint hearted as the next person and I’ve done it.

In mid-1997 the 82,500-ton super carrier USS Constellation had finished providing combat air patrols over Southern Iraq and was heading home from the Persian Gulf.

I spent a day aboard in a party of journalists as guests of the US Navy.

We’d initially landed as human cargo onboard a C2-A Carrier On-Board Delivery (COD) aircraft and took a comprehensive tour of that grey, slab-sided city of close to 5,000 personnel.

When it came time to go we returned to the C2-A and were firmly strapped in. The twin-engine plane was readied for the ship’s steam catapult and we were warned for takeoff.

An F-14D Super Tomcat went first. A brace of F/A-18C Hornets followed before a break to reposition the catapult shuttle.

We waited. Then came a deafening explosion. With it came a crushing load to the base of my spine as my body bent double and the plane was flung from the armored deck and out across the blue vastness of the Coral Sea.

Airborne! Flying at a speed of around 266km/h in just two seconds from a standing start with the G-force trying to tear my body from its seat and reposition it somewhere back in the carrier’s stern section.

The same feeling that will one day be familiar to a host of Chinese pilots somewhere in the Pacific Ocean right now, although they would be flying something more sophisticated than a C2-A.

China has just sent her first aircraft carrier Shi Lang to sea for trials. At 66,000-tons, the reconfigured former Soviet ship is a new player in a regional arms race centred on aircraft carriers and reaches right to Canada’s Pacific doorstep.

Japan’s got three 18,000-ton helicopter carriers and has confirmed plans for two new 27,000-ton flat tops. The latter have will have strengthened flight decks and over sized lifts able to sustain vertical-landing F-35B Lightning II or V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

South Korea has four 18,800-ton carriers planned but two 31,000-ton Australian carriers now under construction in Spain dwarf these. The new RAN ships will also be able to carry F-35B Lightnings into harm’s way via a ski jump flight deck.

At the other end of the Pacific carrier league is Thailand’s 12,000-ton HTMS Chakri Naruebet. It’s small but capable of carrying the country’s dwindling fleet of AV8S Harrier jump jets.

India and Russia also operate fully-fledged carriers in the Pacific. Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov is actually Shi Lang‘s older sister.

All of the above pales besides the US Navy’s five nuclear-powered super carriers home-ported in California, Hawaii and Japan, plus six assault ships.

And Canada? We’ve long been out of the aircraft carrier business. The navy operated three in post-war years, with the last – HMCS Bonaventure - sent to the breakers in 1970.

That doesn’t mean Canada doesn’t have a serious stake in the region. It is watching Shi Lang with interest this week, according to Roger Girouard of Royal Roads University.

 In a recent paper for the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute, the retired Rear Admiral argued Canada should be a Pacific player and not an afterthought.

“This has to be true in the minds of Canadians, as only then will it be so in the minds of our Asian neighbours. It comes down to three words: interest, presence, consistency,” he wrote.

“The whole world wants a part of Asia,” Girouard told the Toronto Sun, “and we have to engage through Pacific trade but also be aware as China’s military shadow lengthen. China is not so much interested in power projection with Shi Lang as it is in just being seen as a player.”

China’s new carrier is a cheap, low-risk way to get experience operating the modern equivalent of a capital ship. They’ll develop doctrine, build up practiced crews and officers and get a real flight deck for aircraft development.

They are also sending a symbolic message to the old world.

“China is telling Europe it has arrived, it is a power and it is ready to fill any vacuum,” Girouard said. “Canada has been in the Pacific in the 1990s peacekeeping in East Timor and Cambodia, but we have been too inconsistent and just not stayed around.

“China is looking to build a permanent presence. We have to too. Not through hard power force projection, but in securing markets for our resources. Canada cannot afford to be left behind.”

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