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China: Road Map to a Carrier Fleet [复制链接]

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February 17, 2009 | 1638 GMT

Summary

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy may field two indigenously built, conventionally powered aircraft carriers around 2015. Two indigenously built, nuclear-powered carriers could follow beyond 2020. Though details remain scant, this road map for Beijing’s possible future carrier fleet is characteristic of China’s recent shipbuilding practices and trends in broader strategic thinking.
Analysis

Chinese plans for an aircraft carrier fleet have somewhat taken shape in the last year. Reports have emerged of naval aviators training for carrier-based fixed-wing aviation, as well as of a potential schedule for building and fielding new carriers. This schedule suggests that China will possess two indigenously built, conventionally powered carriers by 2015, and two nuclear powered carriers after 2020.

Though details remain scarce, this potential road map for a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) carrier fleet offers insight into both Chinese naval shipbuilding practices and Beijing’s larger strategic goals.

The fate of the Varyag, a never-commissioned Soviet-era aircraft carrier transferred to a Chinese company in 1998, has been the stuff of naval rumors for more than a decade. For most of the time China has owned the Varyag, the PLAN has been locked in its own internal debates about how to proceed with naval modernization, and whether this should include a carrier component.

Stratfor has detailed the immense challenge the PLAN faces in building a carrier fleet. Those challenges in part are about timing and prioritization or, more simply, the opportunity costs of investing in a carrier fleet. Part of that opportunity cost is the head start by China’s neighbors in the far less noticed but far more advanced race under way to build amphibious warfare ships capable of expeditionary operations. While Beijing has been focused on carriers, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and South Korean navy have launched the lead ships of new classes, and the Royal Australian Navy is not far behind.
Naval Modernization and Reform

With modern surface combatants deploying to Somalia and submarine activity on the rise, the PLAN is no doubt progressing in its broad modernization and reform efforts. Indeed, such activity can be seen as emblematic of the change in China’s economic structure, which has influenced and changed the way the Chinese look at PLAN development. It has shifted the People’s Liberation Army doctrine from purely homeland defense to more outward-focused operations with greater reach, faster deployment and a more active and regular presence — particularly along vital sea-lanes and near sources of raw materials. And the pressure from developments by its neighbors, along with the still-daunting amount of catching up the PLAN must do, has no doubt added urgency to how the PLAN intends to project air power beyond its own shores.


This begins with learning the nuances of carrier-based fixed-wing aviation. Stratfor has long held that the most likely fate of the Varyag lies not in service as a frontline carrier, but as a training vessel for the PLAN to begin to drill its sailors, air crew and aviators in flight operations. There have been reports that the Chinese have tested carrier aircraft on land-based mock-ups of carrier decks, but such exercises do not give the real sense of landing on a moving deck in high seas with variable winds. Indeed, a carrier flight deck is an incredibly busy and highly choreographed place, and while Chinese observers and crews have no doubt carefully studied Russian (in particular), U.S., French and British flight operations with care, this is a far cry from beginning to master what the British, French and Americans have conducted more or less continuously since before World War II.

China is also pressing forward with shipbuilding. The reported schedule calls for construction to begin in 2009 on a two-ship class of conventionally powered aircraft carriers. These designs likely will rely heavily on the Varyag (with its inclined “ski jump” bow), not only because it is the most modern design architecture Chinese engineers have had the opportunity to become familiar with, but also because China almost certainly will begin by operating Russian aircraft from its decks. A new shipyard capable of handling ships of this size — in excess of 50,000 tons displacement and 1,000 feet in length — appears to have been built on an island off Shanghai. (One mock-up actually showed an aircraft carrier in dry dock.) These ships reportedly are expected around 2015, with two nuclear-powered carriers anticipated beyond 2020. (The Chinese reportedly have obtained detailed blueprints for a never-built Soviet-era nuclear-powered aircraft carrier design that included both a ski jump and catapults.)

China will face very real challenges in this endeavor. Without the nuanced understanding of carrier-based fix-wing aviation that comes only with decades of experience, the design becomes increasingly hypothetical and less grounded in clearly articulated demands from the fleet. Indeed, certain aspects of the Varyag design have been reported to evince the Soviet unfamiliarity with the concept. And though China has plenty of experience building large civilian ships, the unique demands of a carrier invariably will present challenges. (For example, the arresting wires or the large aircraft elevators could prove problematic.)

But this sort of small run of warships is not uncommon in the PLAN surface fleet. China recognizes very clearly where it has much to learn, and presses forward with building and fielding these warships even as it is taking notes for the next batch under construction. In this way, the construction of China’s first two carriers would also be proof-of-concept work to inform the building of the more expensive — and likely larger — nuclear-powered carriers down the road. In that task, China’s experience with modern civilian nuclear technology and naval reactors on its submarines will come in handy.

While doing all this training, development and construction concurrently will inevitably lead to problems, in the long run, the PLAN might begin to have some meaningful operational capability toward the end of the next decade. China can also satisfy its nationalistic appetite to join the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council as a naval power with an aircraft carrier and the capability that entails.
The U.S. Navy and Economic Interests

Though four Chinese aircraft carriers (not counting the Varyag as a training vessel) would total more than any other oceangoing power in the world has except the United States, that capability still has its limitations. The U.S. Navy’s warfighting capability in the blue water remains an area of American military dominance, and defending these new Chinese carriers in a shooting war will come at an even more immense cost than just the carriers and the aircraft.

But China is not looking to challenge U.S. naval dominance directly; Beijing lacks the ambition, the appetite and the capability for that. Instead, it seeks to project its military power to protect its increasingly global interests — particularly its economic interests. And as China’s ongoing counterpiracy operations demonstrate, those interests only rarely entail standing up to the world’s most modern naval weaponry. To protect its interests, Beijing will have to do more just to maintain the status quo as its neighbors in the region continue to build their own military capacity for power projection.

The logical range and mission for protecting Chinese interests likely would call for the ability to sustain a single carrier at all times in the South China Sea near the Strait of Malacca, perhaps with some forays into the Indian Ocean and along Chinese global lines of supply — and with some surge capacity in a crisis. At times, this capability could allow China to project power and influence out to the Philippines and Mariana Islands and to better influence Indonesia and Melanesia, be this via peacekeeping or humanitarian intervention.

Such a reality is obviously many years away, with many challenges and hurdles along the path. But this road map offers clues to the broad course of China’s carrier-aviation development in the coming decade and beyond.
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