August 16, 2011
The global media spun into a frenzy over the past week concerning the Chinese People’s Liberation Army - Navy (PLAN) sending their first aircraft carrier (the ex-Soviet warship VARYAG) out for sea trials. Some may argue this action is indicative of a new dawn of Chinese carrier forces; the first step towards a fleet of PLAN carriers in the future. A more thought-provoking question is whether or not the Chinese are in this for the long haul – to create and sustain aircraft carrier operations for power projection, as opposed to shorter-term “show the flag” posturing and influence operations in the contested South China Sea region. Aircraft carriers require significant funding and an extensive base to man, train, and equip. Can the Chinese afford this? And do they really want to?

Observation and analysis are certainly underway to find out what exactly the PLAN tested during the sea trials. The answer at this initial stage is likely basic mobility: ship’s propulsion, navigation, steering; all factors to determine if they can get the ship underway, operate the propulsion plant, and return to the shipyard safely. Building up to launching and recovering fixed-wing aircraft on a carrier will take time, especially for a nation with no prior experience.

The United States is celebrating the centennial of naval aviation this year, which is a data point to keep in mind – the US Navy did not arrive at its current level of capability overnight. The PLAN will have significant challenges in establishing procedures and techniques to operate large fixed-wing aircraft (the J-15, a reverse-engineered copy of the Russian SU-33 FLANKER) from a flight deck the size of the former carrier MIDWAY (1945-1992)--smaller and shorter than the US Navy’s current NIMITZ-class platforms. There will clearly be growing pains ahead for the Chinese.

Discussion exists on a possible future inventory of three Chinese carriers, providing the ability for a baseline operational presence. That normally translates to one carrier at sea, one carrier in the shipyard for overhaul/maintenance, and one carrier in readiness preparations for future deployment. Construction of a second and third carrier from scratch, without the head start the Chinese received via its purchase of the VARYAG, is a challenge in itself. It will be interesting to watch if the rhetoric of future production continues once the PLAN settles into the details of sailing the carrier they already have.

Building and operating an aircraft carrier are just the beginning. Manning it and establishing a training and logistics backbone to facilitate sustained operations requires time and significant investment costs in infrastructure. The US Navy has a large and expensive industrial and manpower base specifically focused on the carrier fleet, but these were created during World War II and throughout the subsequent 40-plus years of the Cold War.

Beyond costs attributed to the carrier alone, if the PLAN concept is to sustain operations in blue water, they will need to look at “Strike Group-like” requirements. These include command-and-control, ISR and early warning, air warfare platforms (similar to the US Navy’s AEGIS cruisers and destroyers that ride shotgun to defend NIMTZ-class carriers), underway replenishment (definitely a factor to sustain a large fossil-fueled warship), and the like. If the Chinese Leadership opts for a carrier fleet, they are in for a sizable bill.

Aircraft carriers are not new to Asia. India, Thailand, and other nations sail and maintain small carriers that operate fixed-wing aircraft in limited fashion. A large and ambitious platform represented by Chinese employment of the VARYAG, while a leap in potential capabilities, demands an expanded force structure and pricey investments. Beijing must weigh these factors as it develops any future roles and missions for its aircraft carrier. In the final analysis, they may decide that cooperation with other nations to complement existing naval forces, rather than competition in parallel, is an alternative for regional stability that enhances their bottom-line.

Commander Michael Hannan is the US Navy Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the views of US Department of Defense, the US Navy, or any other agency.