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.

3 thoughts on “The Asian Balance: General Liu can shut his eyelids now”

  1. I assume the aircraft carrier is the former soviet “Varyag”. It was but inevitable that China would field a carrier, especially with its ambitions of being a ‘blue water’ navy. It earlier strategy of fielding boomers and shore based missile defence were short term strategies. Though china may have a number heavy sub force, the quality of the latest and the best would be equivalent to that being fielded by India today. In such a scenario the PLAN would not have been able to stand up to the US and allies. The traditional PLA tactic of human wave based saturation attacks would have failed against off-shore naval targets.

    The argument that PLAN carriers would deter US help to allies is strange. If anything it would only increase the chances of confrontation, or more possibly lead to a consolidation of regional alliances with US and or India. Unless you are arguing that a blue water capable PLAN will force US to accept a bifurcation of areas of responsibility between China and US in the island chains of the pacific. The US has a strong history post WW-II of going to war in support of allies or stooges. The whole cold war was such a scenario. Korea, Israel, re-arming and supporting of NATO against a warsaw pact break-out at the Fulda gap, Vietnam, Pakistan in 1971, Afganistan, Kuwait etc.

    If anything the situation here is against China and in favour of any rival formation. At least the Soviets had the opportunity to consolidate the present CIS and warsaw pact nations into a political and military unit. China on the other hand will trigger a war of survival if it tries the same. In essence China is looking for an ideal situation where it would be able to replicate the Soviet aspect of Russia, while it is stuck in a situation wherein it is surrounded by apprehensive neighbours at best and hostile competitors at worst. In such a situation a carrier force for intimidation seems more an instrument for “national re-assurance” than an instrument of force projection.

    – Mike.

  2. Hi Nitin,

    A very good piece, this! I have a couple of points to add, though. It is a common misconception that Soviet strategy for offensive operations in the North Atlantic envisaged using a large number of submarines to counter NATO naval forces. In reality, their approach was far more multifaceted. Submarines formed just a small part of a highly complex system composed of radar satellites in low-earth orbit, surveillance aircraft, long-range airborne tracking and targeting radars, missile bombers, surface ships, and of course, submarines. In fact, it can be convincingly argued that in case of a war, long-range bombers, and not submarines, would have formed the centerpiece of the offensive weaponry against NATO convoys carrying supplies to Europe.

    Similarly, while Chinese submarines do represent an ever-growing threat to navies operating close to Chinese waters, I think that in conjunction with the Varyag, they are attracting attention far in excess of the threat they represent, while China’s land-based naval aviation and airborne anti-shipping abilities are generally being given the go-by. With its large-ish and growing fleet of long and medium range aircraft armed with anti-ship missiles and supported by a decent fleet of fighter-interceptors, I think the PLAAF/PLAN represents the greatest threat to enemy shipping close to Chinese shores, and will continue to do so in the future. While their C3I systems look nowhere near as advanced as what the Soviets had, they are sufficient for operations in littoral waters for now.

    This is part of the reason why I believe the Varyag is not intended to strike Taiwan, apart from a few show-piece raids in the later stages of a war. Not when the Chinese have enough land-based aircraft (these can operate without the constraints imposed by a carrier with a ski-jump) with sufficient range to attack Taiwan from the rear. The ship, as many analysts have already pointed out, will effectively be a training platform, used by the PLAN to learn the ropes of carrier aviation. The lessons learnt will no doubt be incorporated in the second line of carriers that China will undoubtedly build.

  3. Aircraft carriers are needed to protect flotillas from airpower. In that sense, if Chinese fleets ever go up against Indian fleets anywhere, they need a carrier or carriers, as the general rule of thumb, is that you need two to three carriers to be able to deploy one effectively whenever you want, wherever you want. One would be in transit, another in maintenance. If you look at WW2, it shows the importance of ACarriers. The Pearl Harbour attack failed in that it did not take out the US flattops, which then made their presence felt later on. Consider also the effect of the horizon. A typical Naval ship, even with a mast mounted radar cannot track targets beyond the horizon. The higher you fly, the farther the horizon. Only naval aircraft flown from a dedicated carrier, bar the mid-way attempts like our own Ka-31s – which the Chinese too have, can actually afford AEW. Once you have AEW, you can then sortie strike packages. Alternatively, you can defend against them. Submarines are overstated threats because at peacetime, naval convoys can be easily tracked and make their presence known via public, open channels allowing the occasional sub commander to lie in wait and do a surprise. However, in real conditions, a submarine simply moves too slow (unless it is a nuke sub, and noisy) to actually rapidly reposition itself to intercept a rapidly moving convoy in open sea. Hence subs position themsleves at choke points. And an AC can actually stay out of harms way, with a fence of ASW support and sortie aircraft 200-300 km away, each of which can carry missiles with a range of over 100 km themselves. Hence you see to fight ACs, you need ACs. The US, for that very reason, maintains its huge carrier fleet and looks askance at other nations developing similar capability

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