The aircraft carrier is an iconic ship type. That is, its history of dominance at sea along with the great expense and technical challenge of building and operating a fleet of them have invested it with potent geopolitical meaning. Possession of an aircraft carrier, almost regardless of its absolute or relative capability, signals that its owner is among the top rank of world navies. In fact, many countries’ carriers are either inoperable or only minimally so, and others, while able to get under way and operate aircraft, are unitary examples in their navies and thus constitute little more than symbolic naval power.
China has recently put a carrier to sea and appears intent on developing an actual carrier-aviation capacity. The distance between a symbolic and a real capability is quite long, and it is important to understand the nature of that distance to assess the prospects that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will be able to develop a geopolitically meaningful carrier-aviation arm.
Useful criteria by which we might measure the extent China has to go in order to deploy a real carrier-aviation capability can be extracted from the current U.S. maritime strategy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” commonly referred to as CS21.1 Credible combat power, according to that document, comprises the ability to limit regional conflict, protect vital U.S. interests, reassure friends and allies, deter war among major powers and, of course, contribute to winning wars. This is a strategic task list and as such helps us avoid confusing operational capability with strategic utility. In using these criteria we also avoid conflating regional and global considerations. China may or may not have ambitions for projecting military influence globally, but that is not the issue at this juncture.
To complete the CS21 strategic task list, and setting aside for the moment questions of perception and signaling, a navy has to be able to carry out two basic operational functions—sea control and power projection. Real combat-credible power means that an aircraft carrier must be able to go where it needs to in order to clear the seas of enemy combatants and if necessary project power ashore. Moreover, those land strikes must produce strategic results or at least operationally support troops on the ground. It is easy enough to articulate these functions in a broad way, but a lot of difficult business underpins them, not the least of which is logistics.
Formidable Task Ahead
Like good strike planners, we will start at the target and work backward to properly scope the magnitude of the task facing a nascent PLAN carrier-aviation establishment. The first question is whether the target is susceptible to a one-time strike, such as the one the Israelis conducted on the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor or the Eldorado Canyon raid on Libya, or whether a progressive and extended air campaign is necessary. One-time strikes generally require a hefty pulse of power—i.e., a large number of sorties. U.S. carriers can put 40 or more strike aircraft into the air almost simultaneously, and this is barely enough in many cases. Even with precision weapons, some redundancy must be built in to account for losses to enemy defenses, mechanical malfunctions, etc. It is hard to see how a single Chinese carrier of the Liaoning class could generate a sufficient pulse of power with 30 embarked jets. Moreover, with the ski-jump launch system the range/ordnance tradeoff becomes too restrictive, especially in the absence of an aerial refueling capability.
An extended air operation or campaign generates a whole new set of problems. However restricted the number of weapons a J-15 fighter can carry per sortie, at some point the carrier will run low on ordnance. Thus a logistics capability will have to be developed that keeps the carrier supplied with all classes of goods. While fuel, weapons, and food are what most folks think of in terms of logistics, perhaps the most challenging aspect is maintenance and damage repair. With an air wing of 30 strike aircraft, maintenance bottlenecks would be more effective than enemy air defenses in limiting the number of sorties the carrier could put across the beach.
Assuming the PLAN develops an at-sea replenishment capability, such maneuvers interrupt flight operations. So, depending on the nature of the air campaign, at least two aircraft carriers would be needed to maintain continuous coverage at even a minimum level. Although the Liaoning is likely to be more capable than the British carriers that were involved in the Falklands War, the difficulties imposed by the limitations of a ski-jump launch and only two decks would still make support of even limited ground operations over time problematic, especially in the face of a denial threat.
In Search of a Target
Any strike operation, pulse or continuous, presupposes the availability of targeting data. The degree to which China is able to generate such information with satellites or air breathers is unknown, but U.S. experience has demonstrated the limitations of satellites in producing useful cueing against moveable, moving, or hiding targets. Drones have improved targeting, but they are currently land-based. Putting drones aboard carriers takes up deck space, and the tradeoffs are more costly on anything smaller than a Nimitz-class. For a carrier that is already highly constrained in the number of sorties it can generate, waste of weapons and sorties because of defective targeting would quickly neutralize its combat power.
This is all to say that an aircraft carrier—in real as opposed to symbolic terms—is nothing more than a node in a weapon-delivery system. The delivery capacity per unit time and the ability to sustain that rate over time must be matched to the requirements at the receiving end. Factoring in the inevitable inefficiencies, the question is, will that overall flow volume and persistence be sufficient to successfully perform the strategic task? If not, the combat power is not credible. In terms of Chinese naval aviation, credible combat power will not be achieved until the PLAN is able to dispatch at least two carriers on a single mission, and this may not be enough, depending on the defenses they encounter.
Speaking of defenses, they are becoming increasingly problematic for navies that contemplate projecting power ashore. Whereas U.S. carriers are used to being able to sail up to a littoral, even in confined seas, and sit there and feed sorties into the fight, today improved air defenses, quiet diesel submarines, coastal-defense cruise missiles, new types of mines, and other systems are causing the Navy to rethink its approach.2 The Nimitz- and Ford-class carriers have sufficient capacity to allow them to operate from greater distances, but the Liaoning class has no such flexibility. It would be forced to operate in precisely those waters the U.S. Navy is increasingly avoiding with its carriers. Antisubmarine warfare is not one of the PLAN’s strong suits, so combat credibility even against weak neighbors such as Vietnam, who is reportedly purchasing six Kilo-class submarines from Russia, is potentially compromised.
Applying a Strategic Task List
Now that we are armed with some insight on the challenges PLAN carrier aviation will face, let’s go back and examine that CS21 strategic task list. The first task, “limit regional conflict,” is interesting because, given China’s conflicting territorial claims in the East Asian littoral, it is as likely to start as it is to limit regional conflict. On the other hand, if the Chinese still believe in “localized warfare under high-tech conditions” per their published doctrine, then their carriers might have some role in keeping a fight localized.3
Currently, the PLA relies heavily on a complex of missiles, mines, and submarines to keep the United States or other external parties at arm’s length in the event of a war over Taiwan or other islands. It is hard to see how a Chinese carrier force of any feasible size would contribute to this task, given its presumed vulnerability to submarines. Quite the opposite, the carriers’ most likely task would be to threaten or conduct regional conflict under a wider anti-access umbrella in order to enforce Chinese claims. However, functioning in this manner, the carriers would in fact be carrying out the second strategic task of protecting what the Chinese see as their vital national interests, and it is this role that makes the most strategic sense in the context of what we observe to be People’s Republic of China (PRC) policy.
Given the serious constraints on their carriers’ offensive and defensive capabilities, this would only work if the opponent either could not or would not oppose them with diesel subs or other modern anti-access systems. So, the final judgment on the first two strategic tasks is negative; inability to reliably perform these tasks compromises the credible combat power of Chinese naval aviation until such time as they develop a new class with catapults and significantly strengthen their antisubmarine warfare defenses.
The next two strategic tasks—reassurance and deterrence—are also intertwined to an extent. For the United States, establishing a network of partners, friends, and allies has always been a major component of deterrence. For China, this is a problem. And although economically integrated in the global system, it has few, if any, allies to rely on in an emergency. While China has in the past decade attempted a charm offensive (“peaceful rise”) with respect to its neighbors, growing assertiveness has started to drive them together and into cooperative arrangements with the United States. The fielding of a carrier fleet, assuming the nations of East and Southeast Asia come to the same conclusions outlined previously, will have an effect opposite of reassurance.
On the other hand, the Chinese carrier fleet may indeed have some deterrent value if the idea is to keep Vietnam or others from conducting new occupations of disputed islands. Given the relative weakness of neighboring navies’ power-projection capabilities, even the limited operational capabilities of the Liaoning class would presumably be sufficient. Our judgment here must be at least partially positive; Chinese carrier aviation is likely to be sufficiently intimidating to weak neighbors to deter any miscalculations and attempts to create a fait accompli on any of the disputed islands. Whether this would hold true for India, with a growing navy and interests in the Malacca/South China Sea region is another matter. And a Chinese carrier fleet seems more of a hostage than a deterrent to the United States if we feel our interests are sufficiently threatened to require military intervention in the region.
Finally, there is the matter of winning the PRC’s wars. Simply put, in a war with the United States, Chinese carrier aviation would likely be doomed. In limited wars with regional powers close to home, the carriers might provide some utility, especially covering amphibious or special-forces operations, again assuming that a significant diesel-submarine threat does not materialize. This would come into serious play in a war with Japan. China might have to hope that attacking its carrier would be viewed as an untenable escalation, perhaps being the subject of a demarche. However, this is thin protection for the carrier. Our assessment must be that the Liaoning and any future sister ships have only limited potential in any war China might fight within its region. Thus, this aspect of credible combat power is compromised.
In total, then, using the criterion of credible combat power, we find that Chinese naval aviation based on the Liaoning class, even when it achieves full operational capability and has multiple hulls available, will fall short except in niche circumstances. Since the considerations discussed here are likely no mystery to the PLAN itself, we must take at face value the Chinese proclamation that the Liaoning is a developmental platform meant to provide the PLAN with entry-level experience in naval aviation. True PLAN carrier-aviation-credible combat power will have to await the introduction of a new class of ship that has catapults, and also improvements in ASW defenses. But these must be accompanied by the development of airborne-early-warning aircraft and sound maintenance and logistics capabilities.
Even with all this, the PLAN’s carrier aviation will still be subject to the same emerging problems faced by the U.S. carrier force; proliferation of advanced denial systems will progressively constrain the mission space of manned aircraft and aircraft carriers. On the other hand, if China elects to peaceably settle its territorial disputes and emerge as an esteemed member of the family of nations, its carrier fleet will be a welcome addition to the global maritime partnership.4
2. CDR Daniel Dolan, USN “Rethinking the Strait of Hormuz,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2012, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press), vol. 138, no. 5/1,311, www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2012-05/rethinking-strait-hormuz
3. Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi, eds., The Science of Military Strategy, (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2005), ch. 20–24, 394–471.
4. Robert Rubel, “The Future of Aircraft Carriers,” Naval War College Review, Autumn 2011, (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press), 13–27. www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/87bcd2ff-c7b6-4715-b2ed-05df6e416b3b/The-Future-of-Aircraft-Carriers.aspx.