The Future Chinese Carrier Force

May 8, 2013 6:46 AM
A naval honor guard at the in 2012 on board the Liaoning. Xinhua News Agency Photo
A naval honor guard at the in 2012 on board the Liaoning. Xinhua News Agency Photo

China’s acquisition of its first operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, has generated headlines of late. Those reports have included questions about how many additional carriers Beijing intends acquiring.
Air power is crucial to naval power, and Chinese officers have long expressed interest in acquiring aircraft carriers. Many reports of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) carrier construction were published during the final quarter of the last century; President Jiang Zemin may have given the Navy permission to begin carrier design in the mid-1990s.

Aircraft carrier advocates in the PLAN began taking significant steps in 1985 with acquisition of the ex-Australian carrier, Melbourne. Next came construction of a carrier deck mock-up, complete with catapults and arresting gear, in Guangdong Province a few years later. The mock carrier flight deck presumably was used for some period of time to train would-be carrier pilots from the PLAN or the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), but did not last long.

PLAN interest in acquiring aircraft carriers continued; following purchase of the Melbourne, China acquired three former Soviet carriers: the Kiev, Minsk, and Varyag. Commercial companies intending to convert the ships into casinos supposedly made all three purchases, but that obviously was a subterfuge; Beijing bought Kiev and Minsk to allow naval engineers to study their construction, as was the case with Melbourne.

Minsk and Kiev are decrepit hulks; as two of the Soviet Union’s first carriers they were inactive for several years before being sold to Chinese interests. Varyag has had a different history. Its construction began in a Ukrainian shipyard in 1985 and stopped in 1992, a year after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The ship is equipped with arresting gear and a “ski-jump” bow, the latter to facilitate fixed-wing aircraft operations.

Varyag was incomplete when sold to China by the Ukraine in 2000, apparently lacking engines and much other equipment. The ship arrived in China in 2003, following a two-year delay: Turkey balked at its transit of the Turkish Straits and the Dardanelles, an apparent violation of the Montreux Convention. Then followed a hazardous voyage to China under tow. At one point the ship broke free from its tugs in the Eastern Mediterranean and was almost abandoned.

Varyag then spent nearly a decade being reconstructed in Chinese shipyards before becoming operational in 2012. Renamed Liaoning, the carrier began training pilots in the fall. Two factors may detract from Liaoning’s operational life. First is the very long time from initial construction to commissioning, including many years of sitting idle and rusting; ships under construction that long often have proved to be difficult to maintain. Second was the Soviet plan to install a pressure-fired steam propulsion engineering plant in the ship. That plant, similar to that in the Sovremenny-class cruisers that China has acquired, is trouble-prone and difficult to keep in operational trim.

That said, however, her very long time in reconstruction may mean that China rebuilt Liaoning from the keel up, thus ameliorating previous problems. Furthermore, if Beijing does intend employing the ship solely for training aviators, then it may serve that purpose quite satisfactorily. That means, of course, that China plans to build aircraft carriers.

China has been using the J-15 as its first carrier airplane, but has reportedly been negotiating to procure the more capable Su-33 as its carrier aircraft from Russia. Additional, indigenously built aircraft carriers are almost certainly in the PLAN’s future. While Zhang Guangqin, a senior shipbuilding official, denied in June 2005 the report that China was building an aircraft carrier in Shanghai, in October 2006 a senior officer in the PLA General Armament Department, Lieutenant-General Wang Zhiyuan, stated that “the Chinese army will study how to manufacture aircraft carriers so that we can develop our own. . . . [They] are indispensable if we want to protect our interests in the oceans.”

A similar statement was made six months later by a senior PLAN admiral, and then by China’s defense minister, General Liang Guanglie, who reportedly stated in March 2009 that China intends to build aircraft carriers.
Chinese press reports usually describe a 40,000–50,000-ton ship, perhaps similar to the French-built Charles de Gaulle—including possible nuclear propulsion. Liaoning displaces closer to 70,000 tons, however, and it is likely that China will build at least three carriers of approximately that size; also unanswered is whether the new Chinese flat-tops will utilize catapults, like the de Gaulle, or a ski-jump for launching aircraft.

Three carriers theoretically will allow Beijing to maintain near-continuous operational status for at least one of its flattops. Rather than assign one to each of its three fleets, the PLAN may decide to station them in the same port, perhaps in Qingdao, with the North Sea Fleet. The PLAN is also constructing the ships to fill out an aircraft carrier battle group.

New Fuchi-class replenishment-at-sea (RAS) ships are being constructed, but a newer, larger class of RAS ship should be anticipated. That ship will have to be capable of refueling and rearming the carrier plus at least four escorting warships, ideally more than once before reloading fuel and stores. The escorts are likely to be the new Luyang-class destroyers and Jiangkai-class frigates, several of which have already joined PLAN operating forces. Additionally, if the navy follows the U.S. model, at least one submarine would be assigned to operate in at least loose cooperation with the carrier group. The new Type-095 reportedly under construction is a likely candidate.
Liaoning currently is more of a political statement than a naval threat, posing little operational danger to the United States, its allies in East Asia, or even to smaller regional nations. But those nations are reacting to the pending Chinese carrier fleet, primarily by modernizing or acquiring submarines. Japan, South Korea, Australia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, and perhaps Thailand are all strengthening their ability to conduct undersea warfare. For instance, Hanoi’s purchase of six Kilo-class submarines from Russia is undoubtedly in reaction to PLAN modernization. And India is acquiring a nuclear powered submarine fleet, more out of concern for Chinese intrusions into the Indian Ocean than from fear of Pakistan, its more historic enemy.

A future, robust Chinese aircraft carrier force is likely, then, but not assured. The PLAN, like the Indian navy—which plans for three carrier task forces—will no doubt face competition from its army and air force colleagues for defense resources, particularly if the Chinese economy slows. Acquisition of carriers is evidence of Beijing’s maritime thinking in a world in which the Taiwan issue is resolved in China’s favor, with the island coming under the mainland’s effective political control. Seaborne air power does little to enhance the PLAN’s capabilities against Taiwan, even if that regime receives U.S. naval assistance.

Beyond Taiwan, the PLAN faces challenges in the East and South China Seas. The operational ranges involved in an East China Sea scenario do not justify PLAN aircraft carriers; those in the South China Sea do require carrier air power to ensure air cover for PLAN surface forces operating throughout that sea. If Beijing achieves its probable strategic maritime goal of gaining sea control capabilities over the three seas (Yellow, East and South China) by 2049, then next for a PLAN planner would be operations in the mid-Pacific or, more likely, in the Indian Ocean. Either theater requires seaborne air power for effective naval operations.

In sum, the advent of Liaoning, and the likely acquisition of two-to-three additional aircraft carriers, signals Beijing’s seriousness about operating naval forces capable of operating after and beyond a Taiwan scenario, including regular deployments outside the three seas.

Bernard D. Cole

Bernard D. Cole teaches Sino-American Relations and Maritime Strategy at the National Defense University and is a retired U.S. Navy officer.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox