TOWING THE HULL of a vessel out of dry dock and mooring it at the neighbouring berth is not much by way of a naval manoeuvre, but when the vessel is China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, such a ‘launch’ carries a certain symbolism and an opportunity for patriotic pride.
The as-yet-unnamed sister carrier to the Liaoning, China’s starter carrier, herself bought as an unfinished hull from the Russian Navy, will now have to be fitted out and then undergo sea trials. It is likely to be 2020 before she is commissioned into service.
Soon, construction will get underway at the Dalian dry dock on a third Type 001/001A carrier. That will give the PLA Navy the standard carrier set navies everywhere want — one vessel on operations, the second in maintenance and the third being used for training.
This trio will be small beer by the standards of the US carrier fleet. It will comprise Admiral Kuznetsov class carriers, which naval men dismiss as aircraft-carrying cruisers, though that still lets the Liaoning pull rank on the best that India and Japan has, and it is more than a training vessel, better regarded as a moderately capable warship.
Nonetheless, talk of China being able to project military power beyond the ‘Near Seas’ (Yellow, East and South China Seas) is premature. At best, it will be able to project a bit of military power close to home, and perhaps especially against the smaller neighbours on the periphery of the South China Sea. The perception that it can may be the most important impact.
The Type 001/001A carriers are underpowered and have an old-fashioned ‘ski-jump’ aircraft launching system, both of which limit the PLA-Navy’s air power at sea. Also, the Shenyang J-15 multirole fighters the carriers carry are limited in both range and endurance. The latest, fourth-generation fighters represent a significant improvement over the previous versions but fall a long way short of fifth-generation fighters such as the F-35Cs deployed by the United States Navy.
However, under China’s incremental ‘crawl, walk, run’ approach to carrier development, the third Type 001/001A carrier will be considerably more capable flagship for a combat-capable carrier group than the Liaoning.
However, think of the Type 001/001A carriers as collectively being the ‘crawl’ stage; the ‘walk’ phase is already underway at the state-owned Jiangnan shipyard on Changxing, the island opposite Shanghai at the mouth of the Changjiang River. This Bystander noted at the start of last year the four new docks built there for the construction of two mid-sized aircraft carriers, suggesting that the Type 002s will be larger than the Type 001/001As.
Since that post, the satellite imagery shows that a roof has been built over the dry dock, presumably to obscure the view of prying ‘eyes in the sky’. At Dalian, anyone could see the Liaoning’s construction from the roof of the nearby IKEA store.
Displacement — that is size to landlubbers — is not everything when it comes to carriers. Offensive capability is what counts.
Propulsion systems — speed and range for the ship and power for the launching systems — are one critical component. China will have to have nuclear-powered carriers at some point if it wants them to be at sea for long periods without refuelling.
Another is being able to carry more offensively-capable aircraft and launch them more powerfully. One reason that ski-jump launches are so limiting is that take-off is fuel-intensive, cutting range and payload (payload includes not only armaments but also such equipment as airborne early warning systems).
The Type 002s could skip a generation of launchers and go straight to electromagnetic launch systems (EMALS), of the sort the U.S. Navy is currently testing to replace its catapult launchers, although that might be a too radical step for what has been a conservative development plan. The first Type 002 is likely to have catapult-assisted launch, assuming the J-15’s can be sufficiently strengthened to take advantage of it.
The third critical component is developing the advanced weapons and communications systems to control a stronger supporting battle group of destroyers and frigates, logistics and supply ships and submarines.
As we said earlier:
If China is to have a blue-water navy capable of projecting force far from its shores, it will need fleet carriers — and eventually supercarriers if it is to fulfil its long-term ambition of matching the U.S. Navy.
China’s experience in building massive oil tankers and ore carriers suggests that its shipyards can build hulls up to supercarrier size and of the quality and strength necessary in a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The systems and operational sides of carriers are still a work in progress — and the learning curve is steep — albeit advancing with every new carrier built.
Carriers do not sail them selves (not yet at least). However, China has been preparing an elite cadre of carrier sailors and airmen for three decades, an indication of how long-laid its carrier plans have been.
Such preparation mitigates but does not eliminate the risks of carrier aviation. Small, rolling landing strips are inherently more dangerous than those on land. It took the US Navy and Marine Corps 40 years to get their accident rates down to the average level across the US Air Force (they lost 8,500 aircrew over those four decades, according to one retired US naval aviator).
For all the prestige and patriotic pride that China is investing in its carriers, it is almost certain to suffer unexpected losses and reverses.
Nor are carriers the be all and end all of naval power. They would be disproportionately susceptible to attack in the event of war because of their size and roles. In the ballistic missile age, their longevity during a high-intensity conflict would probably be counted in days, if not hours.
This Bystander would be the first to acknowledge that carriers are only one part of China’s plans for a blue-water navy, albeit an expensive one. Our back of the envelope calculation is that the cost of a carrier battle group runs upwards of $10 billion — and China can build them less expensively than most. However, that sort of money would buy the PLA Navy a lot of hardware far more suitable to the roles it is likely to be undertaking in the foreseeable future.
That is part of the calculation of the price of prestige.