China's Carrier Ambitions

Canada greeted the addition of an aircraft carrier to China's navy with little more than a shrug. David S. McDonough explains why the ship's strategic implications deserve greater attention.
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December 10, 2013

The Canadian military is reportedly unimpressed with China’s recently commissioned Liaoning aircraft carrier, according to a briefing note written for then Defence Minister Peter MacKay obtained by Postmedia News. In it, officials challenge claims that the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) “mastered” the difficult task of aircraft take-offs and landings. Instead, the briefing note compares the vessel unfavourably to U.S. Navy carriers, pointing to the uncertainty over production of carrier aircraft beyond the experimental ones currently in use and the limited capabilities of the ship itself.

These criticisms have made it easy to simply dismiss the Liaoning as a relatively unimportant development. Yet such a sanguine view is premature and of little comfort to many of China’s regional neighbours, who confront the carrier with some understandable trepidation – a fact recently brought home by China’s deployment of the ship for training exercises in the South China Sea.

It’s important not to exaggerate what China’s first aircraft carrier actually brings to the table. The Liaoning could achieve an initial operating capability in a few years time. But many more years are needed for a country to become experienced in carrier aviation. The United States continues to perfect its carrier operations and has been testing its capacity for decades, starting from the difficult, casualty-prone years of the Second World War.

Still, one shouldn’t simply dismiss what China has so far achieved. Few analysts expected that the PLAN would demonstrate the capacity to take-off and land aircraft so soon, albeit under almost ideal conditions. These training sorties might be “baby steps” but they are important ones nonetheless. Even a U.S. Navy admiral has come out to say that the PLAN can leverage American lessons in order to learn carrier aviation at a much quicker pace and with fewer accidents overall.

The PLAN also opted for a rigorous training regimen during the ship’s sea trials. Indeed, as noted earlier, the Liaoning was recently deployed as part of a small naval flotilla in the South China Sea, where it first docked at the Yulin naval base on the southern tip of Hainan Island before undergoing training in the surrounding waters; what some experts see as a move to simultaneously test the carrier’s ability to take command of other ships while ascertaining the base’s capacity to handle and service aircraft carriers. This decision exposes the vessel to greater scrutiny, given that any accidents will be difficult to hide compared to its previous location at Qingdao.

The Liaoning should also not be mistaken for a training ship, even if it’s currently being used largely to prepare the PLAN in carrier operations. Some scholars have described the ship as a starter carrier, for good reason; the old Varyag hull was heavily refitted with some important, modern technologies, including a Dragon Eye phased array radar and point defence system. The carrier will also benefit from a fleet of relatively modern Shenyang J-15 carrier aircraft. Many observers see this aircraft as roughly comparable to Boeing’s 4.5-generation Super Hornets. And, contrary to the estimates of Canada’s military briefing note, mass production of the J-15 appears to have already started.

All told, with several more years of practice, the PLAN could finally leverage the capabilities of this carrier. Yes, the Liaoning cannot be compared to a U.S. supercarrier, which is much larger in size and displacement, has a bigger deck capable of holding more aircraft, and uses a catapult to launch heavy, fully loaded aircraft. However, China’s carrier will still be able to launch an air wing of J-15s – though these aircraft could have fewer armaments or at least be hobbled by a reduced operational range, due to the higher fuel requirements for ski jump launches.

Even then, the J-15 could still provide some much needed mobile air cover for both the carrier itself and other PLAN ships operating away from the safety of the Chinese mainland. Indeed, China hinted at just such a carrier task group in the Liaoning’s recent deployment to the South China Sea.

This brings us to the crux of the matter – namely, whether China’s aircraft carrier can indeed be seen as a game changer. Canada’s briefing note seems to assume that the answer is a straightforward no. Clearly, when compared to America’s supercarrier fleet, it is undoubtedly correct to note the disparity between these ships. Yet it also depends on both the audience to this question and the expected timelines when we speak of a game changer, thereby creating greater ambiguity on the final answer.

First, the Liaoning does represent a potential game changer to China’s regional neighbours. This is especially true for smaller maritime claimants like Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea. After all, while operating smaller navies and air fleets, these countries had always enjoyed an important advantage in being located close to the islands and territories under dispute. Chinese ships that operate in these waters have had to do so beyond their country’s shore-based aircraft and air defences, leaving them vulnerable to potential air attacks from these claimants.

Yet this situation is being slowly reversed. The PLAN now enjoys advanced anti-air and surface warfare capabilities on its newer classes of vessels, such as the Luyang II and Luyang III destroyers and the Jiangkei II frigate. China’s South Sea Fleet has taken hold of a number of newer surface combatants and submarines over the past decade. It also benefits from the recent expansion of the Yulin naval base on Hainan Island, which is now better able to handle larger naval ships, including a possible underground facility for submarines.

As a result, China is in a stronger, less vulnerable position to press its maritime claims in the South China Sea. True, China’s aerial refueling capabilities remain limited, which curtails the range and protection afforded by its aircraft. Yet the Liaoning offers another means to extend air cover over its naval forces, especially since the ship could very well be home-ported at Yulin naval base. The ship also promises to become even more salient if China does indeed establish an “air defence identification zone” over these waters, similar to that recently declared over the East China Sea.

Second, China’s first aircraft carrier also heralds an even more significant game changer for it is the first step in the PLAN's long-term goal of fielding a fleet of indigenous carriers. Early reports indicate that China might even be in the midst of constructing two such vessels. Indeed, recent photos have emerged of what looks like a carrier under construction at Dalian ship yard, which reveal a ship much larger than the Liaoning in both size and displacement, including what appears to be a “trench for a steam-powered airplane catapult.”

If true, the PLAN’s blue-water ambitions are much larger than simply the Liaoning. The carrier also puts into perspective its ambitious plans for a sizable surface fleet of destroyers and frigates, with many of the PLAN’s newer guided missile destroyers now undergoing serial production. Aircraft carriers alone remain highly vulnerable targets, even with air cover provided by their carrier-based aircraft. As a result, they need to operate in a task group flotilla, with submarines and surface combatants serving as a protective escort.

Such a development would undoubtedly cause alarm among smaller regional players. More importantly, it could also pose a significant challenge to larger strategic actors, including both Japan and even the United States. In that sense, while not categorically wrong in its immediate analysis, Canada’s military briefing note seems to have missed some of the broader strategic implications brought into play by the Liaoning.