Wednesday 30 April 2008

China's aircraft carrier dilemma.

China's national leadership is facing a dilemma that has bedeviled many other powers in modern history. The challenge--an especially difficult one in an era of rapid technological change--is discerning when and how to spend finite military budgets on new technology, organization, doctrine, and force structure. The history of navies trying to anticipate and prepare for the next war is replete with both positive and negative analogies to which Beijing can turn. These include Germany's attempts prior to World Wars I and II to strike the right balance between fleet-on-fleet and guerre de course and missing on both counts; Japan's pattern prior to World War II of innovating with aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare but keeping the battleship firmly at the center of its naval doctrine; and even China's own naval embarrassments in the 1884-85 Sino-French War and the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, in which poor standardization, divided political and military leadership, and slow mobilization cost the Qing dynasty two very expensive fleets.

The numerous sources available suggest that these issues weigh heavily on China's naval strategists today. Getting the answers right in the near term will appropriately shape China's force structure and inform training and doctrine in anticipation of the most likely scenarios. Obviously, analyses regarding the nature of the next war, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the possible belligerents, and the characteristics of the likely theater will determine those answers. In other words, strategic focus and concentration on the nature of the next war can spur modernization. Taiwan scenarios certainly dominate Beijing's attention, but while they narrow the decision sets, they do not resolve the central dilemma facing China's maritime strategists.

Of the issues that confront Chinese naval modernization, the most comprehensive and far-reaching is the extent to which Beijing has faced a choice between a navy focused on large-deck aviation and one based fundamentally on submarines. The answer is the simplest possible--not at all. China has yet to confront the issue in any meaningful way, and that is so because its technology, assets, and facilities are far from a state that might force the issue.

Whether it makes sense now for China actually to develop an aircraft carrier has apparently been the subject of considerable debate in China. Hong Kong's Phoenix Television has quoted Song Xiaojun, editor in chief of Jianchuan Zhishi (Naval & Merchant Ships), as stating that a PLA faction advocates aircraft carrier development but must compete with elements urging submarine and aerospace industry development. One Chinese analyst states that Beijing, reflecting the interests of the submarine faction, is currently focused on developing new types of submarines in part precisely because they can attack carrier strike groups (CSGs), presumably those of the United States. Carriers present large targets and have weaker defenses than (and cannot easily detect) submarines. Submarines can attack CSGs with "torpedoes, sea mines, and missiles," thereby rendering sea lines of communications and seaborne trade itself vulnerable to undersea attack. The analyst contends that China's Type 093 and 094 submarines will increase the sea-denial capabilities, strategic depth, coastal defense, and long-range attack capability of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). In a recent meeting with the authors, a senior Chinese official elaborated that although he had "been an advocate of aircraft carriers for many years because we need them," until recently carriers had "not been the best use of national resources" because China "lacks an escort fleet," thereby making any carrier a vulnerable target. China has therefore invested instead in "submarines, mid-sized ships, and fighters [aircraft]."

At the same time, however, dismissing China's carrier aspirations could be myopic, given its rapid development of all other major aspects of its navy over the past few years. Submarines currently dominate China's naval development, but they might not do so indefinitely. Contending that submarine force development is not a panacea for the PLAN, one Chinese analyst calls for "rethinking the theory that aircraft carriers are useless and [that one should] rely solely on assassin's maces," or asymmetric silver bullet-type weapons: "Allied ASW is very strong.... [T]he U.S. and Japan carefully monitor PLAN submarine activities.... PLAN submarines' 533 mm torpedoes are insufficient to constitute a strong threat to a U.S. aircraft carrier [and] PLAN submarine-carried guided missiles are insufficient to wound an aircraft carrier."

The aforementioned Chinese official stated to the authors in 2006 that "China will have its own aircraft carrier" in "twelve to fifteen years." In 2004, however, he had declared to a group of Western academics that there was an internal political and military consensus that China had no intention of developing an aircraft carrier. When asked to explain this apparent contradiction, the official stated that over the past two years the subject of aircraft carrier development has become a "heated internal debate" in Beijing as Chinese national interests have grown, sea lines of communication have become ever more important, the need to rescue Chinese citizens overseas has become increasingly apparent, and "air coverage" is viewed as an essential component of "balanced naval forces."

China has made great progress in many dimensions necessary to support the development of aircraft carriers, though in some areas it is unclear whether substantial efforts have been made at all. The PLAN's submarine program is far ahead of its carrier (CV) program. In India, by contrast, the CV program is far ahead of the ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN) program; Spain, Japan, and Thailand have carriers though they lack SSBNs entirely, whereas the United Kingdom and France deploy both carriers and SSBNs. The Chinese literature notes all of these potential force structure models and the disparities in capabilities and experience between not merely the PLAN and the world's leading navies, but most notably between the PLAN and its regional peers, the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) and the Indian navy. In that literature the discussion of submarines, both as machines and as operational and strategic platforms, is much more advanced and grounded in reality than that of carriers--which is still notional, if not romantic, and largely comprises rather generic analyses of possible ship-configuration options. Certainly, there is logic, reinforced by the German and Japanese examples, in not playing to the adversary's strength. If the greater payoff is to be found in an asymmetric "silver bullet" or "assassin's mace" that SS/SSNs or mine warfare seem to offer, why should Beijing invest in a war-fighting specialty--that is, power-projection carrier operations--in which the PLAN is so clearly outmatched by the U.S. Navy and that appears ill suited to China's overall defensive posture? .
This, however, does not mean that the way ahead for the Chinese navy--which currently has a submarine-centered force structure and doctrine--is cast in stone or that the choice need be mutually exclusive. In fact, while submarines seem to be ascendant, the Chinese are still actively engaged with the carrier question and are reframing the terms of the debate. That debate, moreover, has been reinvigorated by recent events, notably the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami, which the above-cited Chinese official averred had "definitely" changed Chinese thinking about the utility of aircraft carriers, and by the advent of China's eleventh "five-year plan," for the period 2006-10. This paper examines China's progress thus far, the road ahead, and a range of ways in which an aircraft carrier might ultimately fit into the PLAN's emerging order of battle.


The aircraft carrier has long had determined, if not numerous, advocates at the highest levels of the Chinese military. Adm. Liu Huaqing, a student of Soviet admiral Sergei Gorshkov at the Voroshilov Naval Academy in Leningrad (1954-58), championed the aircraft carrier when he became chief of the PLAN (1982-88) and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (1989-97). "Building aircraft carriers has all along been a matter of concern for the Chinese people," Admiral Liu insisted. "To modernize our national defense and build a perfect weaponry and equipment system, we cannot but consider the development of aircraft carriers."

Liu has been credited with an instrumental role in modernizing China's navy and with conceiving ambitious goals for its future power projection, in the framework of "island chains." Liu and others have defined the First Island Chain, or current limit of most PLAN operations, as comprising Japan and its northern and southern archipelagos (the latter disputed by China), South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The Second Island Chain, which Liu envisioned as being fully within the scope of future PLAN activities, ranges from the Japanese archipelago south to the Bonin and Marshall islands, including Guam. Some unofficial Chinese publications refer to a "Third Island Chain" centered on America's Hawaiian bases, viewed as a "strategic rear area" for the U.S. military. The ultimate goal is a Chinese navy that can perform a mix of sea denial, area denial, and varying degrees of power projection within and out to these island chains.

In his 2004 autobiography, coverage of which by China's Xinhua press agency implies quasi-official endorsement, Admiral Liu described in some detail his association with, and aspirations for, efforts to develop an aircraft carrier. As early as 1970, Liu "organized a special feasibility study for building aircraft carriers as instructed by the higher authorities and submitted a project proposal to them." In May 1980, Liu became the first PLA leader to tour an American aircraft carrier, USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63). This experience left him "deeply impressed by its imposing magnificence and modern fighting capacity." Liu stated that he emphasized to the PLA General Staff the need to devote great effort to "two large ... key issues" essential not only to "long range combat operations" in "wartime but also to deterrence power in peacetime": development of aircraft carriers and of SSBNs.

Liu recalled that the question of Chinese aircraft development had weighed particularly heavily on him when he became PLAN commander in 1982. "With the development of maritime undertakings and the change in the mode of sea struggles, the threats from sea we were facing differed vastly from the past," Liu assessed. "We had to deal with SSBNs and ship-based air forces, both capable of long-range attacks. To meet that requirement, the strength of the Chinese Navy seemed somewhat inadequate. Despite our long coastal defense line, we had only small and medium-sized warships and land-based air units, which were merely capable of short-distance operations. In case of a sea war, all we could do was to deplore our weakness." But "by developing air carriers," Liu believed, "we could solve this problem successfully."

In early 1984, at the First Naval Armament and Technology Work Conference, Liu recalled stating, "Quite some time has elapsed since the Navy had the idea of building aircraft carriers. Now, our national strength is insufficient for us to do this. It seems that we have to wait for some time." In 1986, however, "when briefed by leaders of the Navy Armament and Technology Department," Liu revisited the issue. "I said that we had to build aircraft carriers," Liu recalled, and that "we must consider this question by 2000. At this stage ... we need not discuss the model of carriers to be built, but should make some preliminary studies." The Gorshkov-educated Liu saw a historical analogue: "The Soviet Union spent 30 years developing carriers. At the beginning, there were different opinions about building carriers. The Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party did not have a firm determination to do this, but the Soviet people wanted carriers. Shortly afterward, they started building carriers. Judging from our present situation, even for defense purposes only, we are in need of carriers." Following Liu's entreaty, "the leaders of the Navy Armament and Technology Department promptly passed my idea to the Naval Armament Feasibility Study Center. Then, the two departments teamed up to organize a feasibility study in this respect."

Liu suggested that in 1987 China was finally on track to address the "key question" of the carrier platform and its aircraft. On 31 March of that year, he reported to the PLA General Staff that Chinese aviation and shipbuilding industry leaders and experts assessed that their country was "technologically capable of building carriers and ship-borne aircraft." Liu allowed that "with regard to some special installations, of course, there are questions that we must deal with seriously. But they can be solved." Liu suggested that China begin carrier development "feasibility studies in the Seventh Five-Year Plan period, do research and conduct preliminary studies of the platform deck and key questions on the aircraft during the Eighth Five-Year Plan period, and decide on the types and models in 2000."

Liu contended that "the annual spending for the present and the following years will not be too much" and that "technologically [the plan had] many advantages." These included catalyzing "the development of technologies required by the state and by national defense." Moreover, "through the preliminary studies, we can get a deeper understanding of the value of aircraft carriers and the need for their existence in war preparations. This understanding will be conducive to making a final scientific policy decision." Liu maintained that his "report had a certain effect on the PEA General Staff Department and the Commission of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense [COSTIND]. After that, the science research units concerned and the Navy's armament department started to make relatively in-depth feasibility studies for developing aircraft carriers under the auspices of [COSTIND]."

Throughout his vigorous promotion of aircraft carriers, Liu insisted, he weighed overall naval and national interests carefully. "During the feasibility studies ... I stressed the need to make a combat cost comparison between using aircraft carriers and ship-borne aircraft and using land-based air divisions, aerial refuellers, and land-based aircraft," he continued. "Later, when I was working with the Central Military Commission, I continued to pay attention to this matter. I asked [COSTIND] and the Armament Department of the PLA General Staff Department to make an overall funding plan for developing carriers, including the funds needed for preliminary studies, research, and armament." Liu stated that the aforementioned plan "should be listed along with the plans for developing warships, aircraft, weapons, and electronic equipment rather than included in the aircraft carrier development program so as to avoid creating an excessively large project that the higher authorities could not readily study. I told them clearly that any plan they made should be discussed by the Central Military Commission."

As for foreign technology, Liu reports,

I gave approval for experts of the Navy and related industries to visit such countries as France, the United States, Russia, and Ukraine to inspect aircraft carriers. During that period, departments related to the national defense industry invited Russian carrier design experts to China to give lectures. Technical materials on carrier designs were introduced into our country, and progress was made in preliminary studies concerning key accessories aboard carriers. Under arrangements made by the PLA General Staff Department and [COSTIND], findings obtained from the inspection trips, materials introduced from abroad, and the results of our own preliminary studies were analyzed, studied, and appraised. This enabled many leaders and experts within and outside the military to enhance their understanding of the large systems engineering [required] for [developing] carriers and ship-borne aircraft....

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