The Calm Before the Storm

China's about to find out how hard it is to run an aircraft carrier.

Zha Chunming/Xinhua/
Zha Chunming/Xinhua/

For more photos of China’s aircraft carrier, click here. 

It’s finally official. China’s first aircraft carrier, named Liaoning after the province in which it was refitted, has just been commissioned and delivered to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). On Sept. 25, President Hu Jintao, who also chairs the Central Military Commission, presided over a ceremony at a Dalian naval base. Joining him were Premier Wen Jiabao, PLAN Commander Wu Shengli, and other top officials. All must have felt the weight of history on their shoulders as they witnessed the unfulfilled ambitions of their civilian and military predecessors.

This milestone was a long time coming. One of Wu’s distant predecessors had first proposed a carrier for China’s navy in 1928. At the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Premier Zhou Enlai and the PLAN commander at the time advocated carrier development, and Chairman Mao Zedong made a supportive speech in 1958. Yet their aspirations were stymied by the far more immediate priorities of domestic ideological campaigns and countering Soviet military pressure amid economic autarky and political isolationism. Subsequently, Gen. Liu Huaqing — PLAN commander from 1982 to 1987 and Central Military Commission vice chairman from 1992 to 1997 — fervently advocated carrier development and initiated studies of foreign technologies and Chinese options.

The procurement and refitting of Varyag, the Ukrainian carrier hull that served as the basis for Liaoning, was an odyssey in itself. The hull was purchased in 1998, but one-and-a-half years of Sino-Turkish negotiations were required to ensure its passage through the Bosphorus. Varyag then began a costly, storm-plagued voyage around Africa in 2001 and did not reach Dalian until 2002. China’s formal carrier program, termed "048," was officially approved in August 2004 under Hu’s chairmanship of the CMC, making Liaoning’s recent commissioning a centerpiece of his military legacy and one of his last acts in office.

The PLAN’s possession of an aircraft carrier is a great public relations booster for the Chinese military and suggests that Chinese diplomacy will be backed by an even bigger stick in East and Southeast Asia, and possibly beyond. Yet the stick was hard to come by and remains far from a potent tool. In fact, Liaoning has not yet demonstrated the capacity for aircraft launches or landings, which is the essence of carrier operations. Why has it taken so long to get to this point, which is not itself militarily decisive?

First, China Shipbuilding Industry Corp. essentially had to start from scratch on the carrier. Fabricating a carrier hull is not easy, but a modern shipbuilding industry like China’s, with yards capable of building supertankers, liquefied natural gas tankers, and large bulk carriers, can bend the requisite steel. This time, Varyag offered a pre-made hull. But on such a massive vessel, the devil is in the details. And for a carrier, the devil manifests itself hundreds of separate times; parts must not only be built, but they must also be integrated into a working set of synchronized systems. Some systems are geared to the maritime dimension, some to the air, and some to both, which imposes very different sets of requirements and characteristics. In short, it is a logistical nightmare to achieve the unforgiving performance levels required of carrier operations.

With respect to hardware, unique subsystems such as aircraft storage spaces and arresting cables to allow aircraft to land must be built and installed. China’s state shipbuilders have thus far been very tight-lipped on how they procured the guts to fill in the essentially empty hull they received. Our hunch is that some parts came from Russia and Ukraine, while a good portion came from Chinese ship-subcomponent suppliers that tooled up and built strong human-capital bases as the PLAN ramped up orders for advanced surface combatants like the Type 052C (Luyang II-class) destroyer and submarines like the Type 041 (Yuan-class).

On the human side, China has had to develop substantial domestic shipbuilding and subcomponent-production expertise in order to get its first carrier into service. Now the country must learn how to actually use it. Becoming a proficient carrier operator is important because the vessel’s initial diplomatic intimidation and influence value will fade unless China can demonstrate an ability to employ the ship competently to an extent that suggests real war-fighting ability.

Carrier warfare, at least as conceived in the United States — which would likely be involved in any major naval confrontation involving the Chinese carrier — is a holistic operational philosophy. Carrier warfare involves factors including but not limited to:

  1. 1) Assembling carrier group(s).
  2. 2) Keeping the ship’s complex naval systems and aircraft running in sync and at high reliability rates in adverse weather conditions.
  3. 3) Being willing to accept pilot and aircraft losses as the force learns to operate jets at sea.
  4. 4) Protecting the ship from a range of air, surface, and underwater threats.
  5. 5) Perhaps most difficult — integrating civilian and military command and decision-making effectively to position and use the carrier in a way that maximizes its ability to influence events in a fluid situation.

The first factor boils down to how much Hu’s successor, Xi Jinping, and China’s other next-generation leaders are willing to spend on naval construction. The U.S. Navy operates 11 carrier strike groups. While there is some variance, a typical strike group comprises the carrier with its air wing of 65 to 70 aircraft, one or more cruisers, and a destroyer squadron composed of two or more destroyers and/or frigates. Submarines, logistics ships, and supply ships often support the carrier as well. The strike group is served by 7,500 personnel, 5,000 of whom operate the carrier and its aircraft alone. U.S. deck-aviation scale and capability is so imposing as to remain completely unattainable for China for the foreseeable future.

Moreover, Beijing does not want to overemphasize carrier capabilities. It neither needs to nor even could employ a carrier group to further its claims in the disputed Near Seas (the Yellow, East China, and South China seas). Even the most advanced aircraft carriers are increasingly vulnerable to attack by missiles and other weapons. Moreover, China already has highly effective weapons systems, including the world’s foremost substrategic missile force, quiet conventionally powered submarines, and numerous and increasingly sophisticated sea mines. Still, even assembling an extremely modest carrier group — which the PLAN will want to do eventually to build future capabilities as a great-power navy — will require dedicating vessels in a navy that is improving qualitatively far more than quantitatively.

The second issue, which relates to the first, is the extent to which a higher naval-training tempo will be prioritized. Training with a carrier group is not cheap: A study by the Government Accountability Office in 1993 (the last time the U.S. Navy released numbers) says it cost $1.5 billion per year to operate a carrier battle group. Today, in an era of higher oil prices, the cost may be double or more. A Chinese carrier group would be far less capable and likely smaller and cheaper, but the old U.S. Navy number gives a sense of the rough costs China will face to operate a carrier, especially with a Chinese fleet that relies more heavily on oil-based fuels than the U.S. Navy. If a Chinese economic slowdown constrains defense-budget growth, the PLAN may increasingly be forced to choose between training more with the ships it has and buying more of the new ships its admirals want.

Third, China’s leadership (and the population at large) must also decide how many pilots and aircraft they are willing to sacrifice if they want the PLAN to become proficient in carrier operations. Between 1949, when the U.S. Navy began deploying jets on a large scale, and 1988, when the combined Navy/Marine Corps aircraft accident rate achieved U.S. Air Force levels, the Navy and Marine Corps lost almost 12,000 aircraft and more than 8,500 aircrew. Even if it moves less aggressively, China is almost certain to suffer significant and unexpected pilot and aircraft losses as it builds its carrier capability. In a predominantly one-child society with growing use of communication tools that can circumvent state censorship, grieving families of lost pilots could spark meaningful negative publicity and impose caution on training in a way that ultimately makes Chinese naval aviation less combat-effective.

The fourth factor speaks to decisions China must make in coming years regarding naval procurement, as well as additional training in areas of critical weakness such as anti-submarine warfare. Beijing faces a two-pronged dilemma in funding naval procurement, and carrier development exacerbates the situation. First, in an increasingly challenging economic environment with slower growth rates, the naval budget faces increased competition for state funds. Second, a single carrier cannot ensure a continuous operational capability. China probably needs at least three carriers to always have one at sea. Building two more massive warships, plus the surface combatants and submarines needed to protect them, would risk catalyzing further naval competition and anti-China security alignments in Asia. Deck aviation may well help China advance its strategic goals in the South China Sea, but it could also hem China in further afield.

Finally, Beijing’s leadership will likely commit a number of missteps before it gets up to speed in the art of carrier diplomacy, a game that the United States has engaged in for nearly 70 years. In a region already rife with suspicion that China’s willingness to use soft power is waning fast as its military becomes more capable, assertive carrier-related rhetoric and deployment may exacerbate tensions with neighbors such as Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

In an exclusive interview with CCTV, China’s first carrier captain, Senior Capt. Zhang Zheng, acknowledged that the PLAN does not yet have sufficient experience in deck-aviation operations. He stated that progress was particularly needed in the integration of naval aviation and surface combatants, the implementation of new safety procedures, and enhancement of administration. It will also be necessary to continue science and technology tests and crew and pilot training. What is significant, however, is that Zhang was realistic about these challenges and that he discussed them in excellent English, the designated international language at sea. These are hallmarks of embracing a weighty historical mission that will take time to realize but will ultimately transform China into a very different sea power from what it is today. Given ongoing disputes and uncertainty about Beijing’s future capabilities and intentions, neighboring countries are bound to worry. But Zhang’s predecessors surely could not be prouder.

Andrew S. Erickson is a professor of strategy in the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute and a visiting scholar in full-time residence at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.

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