Thursday, 18 September, 2008
It seems that China might be at least 15 years away from developing any genuine "blue water naval" capability. "Blue water" can be described as the ability to project naval power anywhere in the world - assumed to require formations of large surface ships with a long range.
The Chinese Navy's full name is "the People's Liberation Army Navy " reflecting its underdeveloped status! China's main effort however appears to be in building medium-small surface ships for shorter range operations. China has the capacity to mass produce these ships - if a rapid buildup is desired. It is also putting substantial development resources into building submarines, including ballistic missile submarines (reflecting the emphasis on nuclear deterrence) and attack submarines for asymmetric warfare against larger foreign navies.
China's refurbishment of the large aircraft carrier Varyag (potentially 68,000 tonnes full load) is puzzling. Varyag was built by the Russians from 1985 onwards - then given to the Ukraine which sold it to China via a Macau casino company. When received by China Varyag probably had no engines, no rudder and almost no electronics. China is examining and rebuilding Varyag in a drydock in the Dalian shipyard in northeastern China.
Many analysts believe that the ship will only be used for training if ever completed. Yet the Kommersant online daily newspaper revealed Russia plans to sell up to 50 navalised Su-33 fighters in a $2.5 billion deal confirmed by the February 2007 issue of Airforces Monthly. Also recent photos in the Dalian shipyard have shown that a yellow anti-skid primer was added to the flightdeck, final flight deck turf layering added on top of it and the vessal painted in standard Chinese Navy colours. This indicates that the PLA Navy may intend to use it as an operational carrier at some point in the future.
Varyag was not designed to carry catapults to launch heavy fighter bombers - instead its Su-33s (aided by the "ski-jump" would be for fleet defence. With only 17 Su-33s proposed and a similar number 0f helicopters Varyag is not in the same class as proposed UK or French carriers of that size. Varyag relies on the typically Russian solution of also being a missile cruiser (it would carry a wide range of anti aircraft, shipping and (maybe) land attack missiles) to supplement its aircraft in fleet defence.
Varyag has been given a provisional name of Shi Lang with pennant number 83 by Janes Fighting Ships in January 2007 from various sources. Significantly Shi Lang is named after a Ming-Qing Dynasty admiral who re-took Taiwan.
While China's ability to operate Varyag as an operational carrier appears remote the existence of this ship could give the appearance of a "blue water navy" very quickly.
America's tendency to see Chinese military developments as highly provocative would be quickly ignited if this ship one day sailed with some Su-33s aboard in the direction of Taiwan, Japan or Vietnam. It would be the kind of straw man to contribute to tougher US measures against China and a more sharply rising US naval budget.
China can use it to overawe Taiwan and perhaps force the Taiwanese into a resource (and morale) sapping naval construction program.
Varyag may also worry India.
Western concentration on Varyag may well provide a decoy while China quietly builds mundane amphibious assault ships for its more immediate goals of invading (or threatening) Taiwan or other contested islands.