The Asian Balance: General Liu can shut his eyelids now

Why does China need an aircraft carrier?

This is the unedited draft of my column in the Business Standard today.

 

China’s new aircraft carrier should surprise only those who were not looking—it has been China’s largest open secret for several years now. It has been apparent, literally,—thanks to Google Earth—, that the partially-completed Soviet-era vessel that China’s Chong Lot Travel Agency purchased for $20m in the late-1990s, complete with designs, was not really going to be used as a floating casino and amusement park. There have been other signs, including facilities and training programmes for naval personnel and aviators, that suggested China intended to operate aircraft carriers. As early as 1987, General Liu Huaqing, the recently deceased father of the modern PLA Navy, said that “Without an aircraft carrier, I will die with my eyelids open; the Chinese Navy needs to build an aircraft carrier.”

So both stated intentions and signs on the ground indicated that an aircraft carrier was on the cards. The only question was why, for the PLA Navy’s strategy over the last two decades has been to counter the United States’ formidable surface fleet through the development of its own submarine force. This strategy—of using submarines to neutralise the power of aircraft carriers and warships—was pioneered by the Soviet Union’s Admiral Sergey Gorshkov. In a remarkable demonstration of irony or its deficiency, the Soviets named one of their aircraft carriers after him, the same that India since purchased and is awaiting delivery of.

If aircraft carriers are a platform for a country to project hard power far beyond its shores, submarines are an effective way deny to them space. China had around 65 operational submarines last year. In 2007, one of them slipped past an array of ships and aircraft into an area in the Pacific Ocean where the US Navy’s aircraft carrier strike group was conducting training exercises. That incident was a stark reminder of the vulnerability of aircraft carriers to the Gorshkov strategy. It was also a signal of the changed maritime balance in the Western Pacific ocean.

The utility of aircraft carriers as a device to project power on the littoral is also undermined by anti-ship missiles. Chinese-made anti-ship missiles or their variants are deployed, among others, by North Korea, Myanmar, Iran, Bangladesh and possibly Pakistan. To the extent that their range, capability and proliferation grows, aircraft carriers become less useful in their traditional roles of power projection.

In other words, aircraft carriers will need to increasingly stay away from hostile shores, limiting their effectiveness. The benefits of deploying an aircraft carrier is likely to diminish over time, even if the costs stay the same. An aircraft carrier may pack a bigger punch, but is also more vulnerable in itself, costlier to protect and causes a greater strategic setback if damaged or destroyed.

After doing so much to neutralise the strategic utility of aircraft carriers why does China want to deploy them? Of course, there is prestige. Another reason is to do with the balance of power within the Chinese Community Party and the People’s Liberation Army, where pro-PLA Navy factions might have strengthened in recent years. That said, it is difficult to conclude if the navy’s growing political clout is the cause or the effect of the geopolitical churn in East Asia. Beyond these explanations there are three broad reasons why China might want to use aircraft carriers for.

The first is Taiwan. The very name proposed for the new carrier, Shi Lang, suggests Taiwan as its intended target. Shi Lang, a Manchu Qing dynasty general, conquered and annexed Taiwan into the Chinese empire in 1683, defeating the Qing dynasty elite who had fled to that island. Lan Ning-Li, a retired Taiwanese admiral notes that “the carrier would be in a position to move in areas surrounding southern and eastern Taiwan…(making it) vulnerable to enemy attacks at sea from both front and rear.” With nuclear weapons and submarines deterring the United States, an aircraft carrier will add to China’s military capabilities in a possible invasion of Taiwan. The PLA’s statement that “even after China owns an aircraft carrier, it is impossible for China to send the carrier into the territories of other countries” does not rule out use against Taiwan, which according to Beijing is part of China, thanks to the original Shi Lang.

Second, an aircraft carrier can be used as a vehicle for China to enforce its territorial claims over the Yellow, East and South China seas. If so, Shi Lang will be replacing fishing trawlers that have engaged in decidedly unfishermanly activities such as carrying surveillance equipment, ramming Japanese patrol boats, entangling with cables connected to Vietnamese exploration vessels and squatting over unpopulated islands. These presumably non-state actors currently perform the function of tripwires, creating incidents that trigger Beijing to assert its maritime claims. Introducing aircraft carriers into this game is dangerous, but the threat to do so could deter the US Navy from entering the fray in support of its allies.

Finally, China’s interests are global. It is likely to want to set up expeditionary forces to operate in distant theatres to pursue those interests. This is normal. However, like “peaceful rise”, a “defensive aircraft carrier” is a layer of sugar coating applied to make the indigestible just a little more palatable.
 

© 2001. Business Standard. All rights reserved.

Saying no to the USS Kitty Hawk

The irony of Gorshkov

The latest angle to the ups and downs of securing a second aircraft carrier for the Indian navy is the speculation that the United States intends to offer the USS Kitty Hawk, a 53-year old vessel that is up for decommissioning from the US Navy.

Image: Stratfor
The American offer is interesting for three reasons: first, it offers India greater bargaining power with Russia in the negotiations over the delivery of Admiral Gorshkov (INS Vikramaditya). Second, it offers the Indian navy capabilities to operate and train its personnel on an American platform. And third, it could improve India’s maritime power projection capabilities to a relatively greater extent.

The integration of this huge American ship into the Indian navy, however, is likely to pose its own set of problems. From the type of aircraft that can fly off it, to operational processes, to the logistics and docking arrangements, there are a whole range of operational issues that need to be addressed. And in addition to all the usual problems related to the purchase of second-hand equipment (the Kitty Hawk was commissioned in 1955), the possibility that the United States might insist upon an “end-user clause”, requiring US clearance before offensive operations seriously undermines the case for its purchase.

But the main reason to reject the American offer may lie elsewhere. The Kitty Hawk at a full displacement load of over 80,000 tons, it is three times larger than Viraat and almost twice as that of Gorshkov. It is also about a third longer than Viraat, but can carry seven times as many aircraft (70 against 12). There is no doubt that the Kitty Hawk is in itself an attractive alternative to Gorshkov or an addition to the fleet. The problem though, lies in the relevance of aircraft carriers in future naval combat. [See this interview with John Arquilla in MIT Technology Review]

China and Pakistan are investing in a submarine based fleet. Iran is investing in small, fast armed vessels. And they are also investing in anti-ship missiles. The latter are improving in range and capability, and are fairly accessible to even smaller states and non-state actors in the region. In naval conflicts of the future, aircraft carriers will need to increasingly stay away from hostile shores, limiting their effectiveness. The other way of looking at it is that the benefits of deploying an aircraft carrier—and the complement of frigates and destroyers that form part of the task force—will diminish over time, while costs will increase or stay the same. A bigger aircraft carrier may pack a bigger punch, but is also more vulnerable in itself, costlier to protect and will cause a greater strategic setback if damaged or destroyed. [Moreover, as India’s missile capabilities have come of age, they can increasingly replace carrier-based aircraft, just as they are replacing land-based ones]

The person who recognised this and developed a naval strategy that put a lot of weight in submarines was, ironically, Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, Sergei Gorshkov. While India has bought a ship named after him, China and Pakistan have bought his logic.

This is not to say that the Indian navy doesn’t need aircraft carriers—it does. There are conceivable scenarios where aircraft carriers can be decisive, though not all of them involve actual combat. The point is that the role of carriers is diminishing in the 21st century naval battlefield, and hence smaller, perhaps, is better.

(Navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta) denied reports that the United States had offered to gift India its Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier, which is due for decommissioning. Even if the offer were made, India would not accept it, he said, because the ship was “too old, too big.” [The Hindu]

Related Link: Information Dissemination on ‘A strange solution for India’s Russia Problem’

Update: A version of this post appears on the South Asia Monitor, an online publication of the Contemporary Studies Society, New Delhi

Liberalise the defence industry

And thank Russia for shaking India out of its lazy old ways

What stands in the way of the Indian armed forces using indigenously developed main battle tanks, fighter aircraft and aircraft carriers?

Answer: Cheap Russian imports.

Years of dependence on Russian military hardware—which could be obtained at rather attractive prices—simply meant that the armed forces preferred readymade products they could use, rather than take more risky route of using the gear that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) was developing. Giving the armed forces roughly what they wanted was a less risky option for the politicians heading the defence ministry. The relative ease with which Russian arms could be imported meant that there was no real incentive for India’s policymakers to think how domestic defence production could be improved. This is an oversimplification, of course, but it is the nub of the issue.

India needs a crisis, it is said, to jolt it out of its ways. Russia’s behaviour over the refitting and delivery of the aircraft carrier should provide one. Not merely because it upsets the navy’s plans to have two carrier groups by the end of this decade, but because the possibility of a Russia-China equation is real. India should develop a reputation for standing up to Russian armtwisting. Reliance on imports from Russia—cheap or otherwise—, however, poses long-term strategic risks.

Now, building main battle tanks, fighter aircraft and aircraft carriers is not trivial. But there is no reason to believe that India can’t develop and build them indigenously. It’s time to liberalise the defence industry. Transforming defence procurement policies to ensure that there are strong domestic manufacturers is not rocket science. It can be done.