Will China Become an Aircraft Carrier Superpower?

With the announcement of its second carrier, prepare for a far more assertive Beijing.

BEIJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 16:  Chinese People's Liberation Army navy soldiers of a guard of honor rehearse before a welcoming ceremony for Bahrain's King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa outside the Great Hall of People on September 16, 2013 in Beijing, China. At the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain paid a state visit to China from September 14 to 16.  (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 16: Chinese People's Liberation Army navy soldiers of a guard of honor rehearse before a welcoming ceremony for Bahrain's King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa outside the Great Hall of People on September 16, 2013 in Beijing, China. At the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain paid a state visit to China from September 14 to 16. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

On New Year’s Eve, the official People’s Daily confirmed an ill-kept secret: that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is building a second as-yet-unnamed aircraft carrier to serve alongside the Liaoning, the refitted Soviet-era carrier that joined the PLAN fleet in 2012. This is a homecoming of sorts for me. My earliest Foreign Policy essay, in 2011, explored why China wanted carriers in the first place. Fear, honor, interest — the primal motives that spurred China to overhaul a 1980s-vintage hulk for active duty — remain at work today.

Strategist Edward Luttwak helps explain why Beijing wants additional flattops and how it may use them for political gain. In his 1974 book, The Political Uses of Sea Power, he wrote that ships are more than engines of war. In peacetime, they are tokens of national commitment, useful for compelling, deterring, or reassuring in crises short of war. Deploying them to trouble spots telegraphs resolve, putting allies, prospective antagonists, and bystanders on notice that the leadership is prepared to use decisive force to get its way. Artfully employed, they awe outmatched opponents. What’s not to like about a carrier fleet if you’re Beijing?

Let’s start with the hardware dimension and work outward to discern the flattop’s operational and strategic purposes. What kind of carrier will it be? The People’s Daily claims it will be “totally different” from the Liaoning. (Beijing paid $20 million to purchase the Liaoning; it’s impossible to estimate how much it spent on it afterward or how much it will spend on the second carrier.) Color me skeptical. Unless the PLAN has concluded that the Soviet design is junk, the new flattop will derive from the Liaoning. It will constitute an incremental improvement, incorporating lessons learned from operating China’s first aircraft carrier.

It will not be altogether different — nor should it be. Navies learn by operating ships on the high seas. Naval architects can dream up a new concept that looks great on paper, but sailors have to vet the concept after shipbuilders transmogrify blueprints into steel. Going to sea and putting a ship through its paces is the only way to rigorously test a design. Battle is the true arbiter of a fighting ship’s performance, but thankfully such unsparing field trials seldom occur. Short of that, cruising the briny main for long intervals, conducting flight operations, and simulating combat offer the best substitutes.

Think of peacetime deployments as proving grounds for newfangled widgets. That’s the Liaoning’s contribution to Chinese naval aviation. PLAN mariners have operated the Liaoning at sea for more than three years now, accumulating data that reveal the design’s good points while exposing its faults and eccentricities. Shipwrights will incorporate their findings into the second carrier, integrating the best of the Liaoning’s features while discarding or working around the worst.

They’ll repeat the process when the new flattop goes to sea, evaluating its performance to refine future designs. Lather, rinse, repeat: The process of incremental progress goes on until — someday, perhaps — the PLAN alights on a wholly satisfactory design. Then Chinese shipyards can swing into mass production, turning out more or less identical copies — like the U.S. Navy has done since the mid-1970s with its Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Heck, even the Navy’s ultramodern Ford-class carrier is a sexed-up derivative of the Nimitz.

This pattern — “build a little, test a little, learn a lot,” as the late Rear Adm. Wayne E. Meyer put it — conforms to China’s long-standing and prudent practice of fleet experimentation. For example, the PLAN built a few apiece of several classes of guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) during the 2000s. The lessons learned from experimenting with these early-generation destroyers fed into the Type 052D Luyang III-class DDG — the design that went into serial production a few years ago and promises to become the fleet’s workhorse escort vessel for the next few decades.

That approach to gradual upgrades also works with aircraft carriers. What does this excursion into naval shipbuilding imply about the new flattop’s characteristics? If it is an improved variant of the Liaoning, it will probably have roughly the same displacement (a proxy for weight). Indeed, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson declared that the ship will displace “about 50,000 tons.” Straightforward, right?

Not necessarily. There’s a world of mischief in naval architecture statistics. Ships have “light,” “standard,” and “full” displacements. Light refers to the vessel’s weight when no people, stores, fuel, or ammunition are on board — in other words, its empty weight. And full means the hull with a full crew and full complement of supplies. Standard lies between. Which is it for China’s carrier?

No one has said — and this is a distinction with a difference. Once upon a time, I was a damage-control officer in an Iowa-class battleship, responsible for monitoring how the ship’s displacement changed as fuel was burned or replenished, stores and ammunition were consumed or loaded, and so on. Our light-load displacement was about 45,000 tons and our full-load displacement about 58,000 tons — a roughly 29 percent difference in tonnage. By muddling the terminology, it is possible to convey a false impression about a ship’s size and power.

Transpose that insight to China’s carrier project. If the new flattop weighs 50,000 tons when full, it has roughly the same dimensions as the U.S. Navy’s latest amphibious helicopter carrier, the USS America. If the PLAN carrier is about 50,000 tons when empty, it’s about the same size as the Liaoning, which displaces around 55,000 tons when light but up to 65,000 at full — comparable to the USS Midway, the first U.S. supercarrier. An amphibious transport is a far cry from a supercarrier.

The safest guess is that the PLAN is honoring its tradition of fleet experimentation while undertaking aircraft carrier development. In all likelihood that means a ship displacing around 65,000 tons, comparable to the Liaoning and the USS Midway — a vessel that rendered good service as recently as Operation Desert Storm in 1991. It has laid the keel for an improved Liaoning, while spokesmen are using lowball figures to describe its dimensions. If events bear out that guess, the ship will sport roughly the same “air wing,” or complement of aircraft — any carrier’s major striking arm. Liaoning’s air wing consists of about 25 fighter jets and about 20 helicopters. The new vessel will probably carry about the same aircraft complement. (Nimitz-class ships can carry over 80 aircraft — though they seldom do.)

How will China use its new flattop? Well, this will be the PLAN’s first genuinely operational carrier. The navy has employed the Liaoning mainly as a training vessel, grooming China’s first corps of naval aviators while acclimating fleet sailors to operating in carrier task forces. Both functions are crucial. Launching and landing on heaving flight decks is extremely stressful — witness studies showing that aviators’ hearts pound harder when landing aboard ship than in combat.

Making such intricate endeavors routine takes practice. And ship drivers need practice as well. Aircraft carriers are the centerpieces of carrier task forces. A flattop, that is, steams in company with a retinue of escort ships — destroyers, frigates, logistics vessels, and the like. It needs this entourage to protect against surface, subsurface, or aerial attack while supplying the “beans, bullets, and black oil” that sustain equipment and crews during high-seas operations.

Choreographing the movements of lumbering ships within a formation is far from easy. Just as mariners experiment with hardware, they experiment with and practice tactics for task-force steaming and maneuvering.

It’s worth speculating about how many carriers China will build. My guess is China is building toward a seven-carrier fleet, because that would let the PLAN keep using the Liaoning as a training ship while operating six fleet carriers. That sounds like a lot; the U.S. Navy has only 10. (The United Kingdom’s Royal Navy is building two flattops of about the same dimensions as the Liaoning, but no other navy operates more than one.) Using USS Forrestal, the U.S. Navy’s first true supercarrier, as a measuring stick, it will probably take the PLAN at least four years to finish its new ship. The Forrestal was ordered in 1951 and commissioned in 1955. By that time, of course, U.S. shipyards had amassed considerable expertise turning out smaller, more rudimentary vessels of the type — speeding up the design and construction process. Chinese yards could work more slowly since this constitutes their first outing in carrier construction.

Does this mean China intends to rampage throughout East and South Asia, or even beyond? Not necessarily. An old folk saying holds that “two is one and one is none.” In other words, the prudent handyman always keeps a spare widget handy. The logic of redundancy applies to navies as well — except that navies need at least three hulls to keep one constantly ready for sea. There’s a rhythm to naval operations, maintenance, and training. Let’s say Beijing wants to keep one DDG on foreign station, for instance in the Indian Ocean. Having taken its turn on station (six to seven months for the U.S. Navy), a second will have just returned and gone into overhaul, unable to sail. Meanwhile, the third DDG is undergoing a regimen of pre-deployment training and routine upkeep. At best, it’s partly combat-ready.

For naval commanders, the saying should go more like “three is one and fewer is none.” If only two hulls are available to keep a commitment, that commitment will go unfulfilled part of the time — much as the U.S. Navy has recently been forced to “gap” its carrier presence in the Persian Gulf and may do so again this summer. The PLAN could never hope to maintain a constant carrier presence with just the Liaoning in its inventory. It will be hard-pressed even after the second flattop is ready for action.

No armed force with superpower ambitions relishes keeping its commitments only intermittently. A six-carrier fleet would let the PLAN keep two vessels ready for sea at all times while sustaining a viable cycle of maintenance, training, and sea duty. This would open up new operational vistas for China. For instance, one carrier task force could patrol the waters within the first island chain — the offshore islands running from Japan south through Taiwan and the Philippines — upholding Beijing’s maritime territorial claims while reminding fellow Asians of who’s boss. Beijing could dispatch the other combat-ready unit for expeditionary duty in, say, the Indian Ocean, maintaining a standing presence in a region of vital economic importance.

If three is one, six is two, plus an extra to train new naval aviators. Ergo, a seven-carrier fleet!

Suppose Beijing makes good on this vision. How will it use naval air power to fulfill political purposes? No sane leadership covets war, an enterprise fraught with peril, hardship, and heavy costs. Better to win without fighting. Luttwak observes that governments use ships as implements of “naval suasion,” influencing “allies, adversaries, or neutrals” through “the existence, display, manipulation, or symbolic use” of seagoing fleets.

Naval suasion is about shaping key audiences’ decisions by configuring a powerful fleet and flourishing that big stick through training exercises, deployment patterns, and other peacetime pursuits. By looking fearsome and conducting itself professionally, says Luttwak, a fighting fleet casts a “shadow” on adversaries’ deliberations — fettering their freedom of action. You don’t have to go to war to win.

Which is the point. A country that’s apt to lose in battle is apt to prove pliant in peacetime confrontations. In China’s case, the shadow darkens deliberations in capitals like Manila or Hanoi — lesser rivals that have defied Beijing’s will on such matters as maritime territory and overflight rights. Asians may submit if they see impressive PLAN carrier task forces plying the sea, respect the proficiency of the crews operating ships and warplanes, and believe the PLAN’s political masters will stand resolutely behind their strategic aims — swinging the big stick, should it come to that.

In short, carrier groups comprise an exceedingly useful diplomatic implement. A single PLAN carrier task force could outgun many Southeast Asian navies — arguably all of them combined. (The pride of the Philippine Navy, for instance, is a brace of four-decade-old, mostly disarmed U.S. Coast Guard cutters.) A task force can deter or coerce overmatched antagonists directly. But Luttwak’s logic works vis-à-vis stronger opponents like Japan as well, albeit indirectly. If Tokyo pushes back, a PLAN aircraft carrier will symbolize Beijing’s willingness to put the full weight of Chinese military power — including land-based missiles and aircraft operated by the air force and army — behind its policies.

Either way, the message broadcast from Beijing is stark: Buck China’s will, and you incur fearful consequences. The message will come through more and more clearly as the PLAN fills out its carrier fleet — building up the capacity to maintain a standing carrier presence in offshore waters.

If the United States and its Asian allies want to counteract China’s flattop diplomacy, they need to venture some naval suasion of their own. China wants to dishearten prospective foes through naval capability and shows of political resolve. But the allies can firm up their own naval capacity and alliance solidarity. They can dissuade Beijing if they can sow doubt about China’s inevitable triumph in a trial of arms. They can deflate the threat implicit in PLAN task forces — and uphold their interests and purposes. Take heart — and act.

Image Credit: ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.


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