China watchers and naval enthusiasts were given a Christmas treat when China’s first Aircraft Carrier, the CV-16 Liaoning, finally sailed from its home port in northern China to conduct exercises in the Western Pacific. While many have criticised the outdated design of the vessel, its development must be understood as just one step in a longer-term plan for China’s maritime ambitions.
On December 25 the Liaoning and its escort ships – two Type-054A Jiangkai-II class frigates and three Type-052D Luyang-III class destroyers with likely a Jin or Han class submarine prowling around somewhere – sailed through the Miyako strait and into the Western Pacific beyond the first island chain for the first time. After live fire exercises involving its air-wing, the battle group entered the South China Sea through the Bashi channel and proceeded on to Hainan. Although the exercise was tracked by the Japanese and Taiwanese militaries it was the carrier group’s passage though the Taiwan strait in early January which caused the most excitement. The timing of the exercise, not least the carrier group’s transiting of the Taiwan strait coinciding with President Tsai’s own transit through the U.S. while on her way to South America, was clearly meant to send a signal. But is too much being made of the exercise?
First a comparison. The Liaoning has a displacement of around 60,000 tons, which is well short of that of an American Nimitz class but places it above India’s carrier Vikramaditya and France’s Charles De Gaulle. Its inherent design of a ski ramp launch STOBAR system means Liaoning and its J-15 Flying Shark jets are limited to less than two-thirds the payload a Nimitz can launch with its CATOBAR system. It also precludes the capability for Liaoning to launch larger maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, meaning a reliance on helicopters for anti-submarine warfare. Its propulsion system limits the carrier to an estimated top speed of 20 knots, much slower than a Nimitz, and its Type 346 AESA radar is already behind that equipped to the Type-52D destroyers. Liaoning also lacks the anti-ship missile launch tubes of its original design as they were removed in favour of accommodating aircraft.
But comparing China’s refitted former-Soviet “bargain-basement” carrier with a U.S. carrier group is hardly fair. The Liaoning, unlike its Russian sister-ship Admiral Kuznetsov, does not have to suffer the indignity of being escorted everywhere by a tug for when it inevitably breaks down. It is also not a sitting-duck like the Vikramaditya (so called because it lacked an air defence system for some time) and nor has its first voyage snapped its propellers or resulted in a radioactive glow like the Charles De Gaulle. The point is that aircraft carriers, like any major and complex weapons system, are prone to cost overruns and technical faults which can be near-catastrophic. As any observer will point out, the significance of Liaoning is not about the capabilities it has but rather what it means for China’s long road towards being a successful carrier operator.
Of more interest than its capabilities or its use as a signalling device for Beijing is what CV-16 and its planned successors say about the direction of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and China’s vision for global influence.
What makes assessing China’s carrier programme so difficult is that we have no real idea what the world will look like by the time it is fully realized decades from now.
In some ways it is surprising that Liaoning even exists. After almost ending its life as an unfinished hull in a Ukrainian shipyard, the Varyag, as it was then known seemed destined to become a hotel and casino in Macau when it was sold for the paltry sum of $20 million. Several years and $200 million in transport costs saw the ship arrive in northern China for an extensive refit, finally fulfilling the dreams of the pro-carrier lobby in Beijing which had been arguing for carriers since the 1990s.
Indeed, the decision to go ahead with the construction of China’s first carrier came not just from the purchase of the Varyag, but out of a number of other factors all coinciding. The carrier arrived in China as advances in radar, arrestor wires and other technologies made a Chinese-built or refitted ship a viability, and the new Jin and Luyang-II class vessels were becoming operational. The decision fundamentally changed the direction of the PLAN’s development, setting it on the path to becoming a forward leaning force, capable of ultimately engaging in combat beyond the first island chain.
The choice to engage in carrier operation may be a very expensive mistake on the part of China. Leaving aside that it will take decades before a Chinese Carrier Battle Group (CBG) will be able to engage with its U.S. counterparts as a peer-competitor, carriers are of little use in almost all likely combat scenarios that China could engage in. Both the South and East China Seas are too constrained for carrier warfare, lacking the room for a CBG to hide or maneuver. The region is also replete with nations armed with perfectly capable attack submarines and anti-ship missiles that could easily turn any attempt by China to use a carrier in the neighbourhood into a catastrophic loss of materiel, not to mention face.
Since the Chinese annexation and militarization of disputed islands in the South China Sea, there is also a far less compelling case for the need to provide sea-borne air cover, and a carrier would add little – if anything – of consequence to any scenario involving Taiwan. Indeed, a carrier-focused PLAN will not only detract from other more suitable weapons systems in all scenarios barring war with the U.S., but in choosing to project power out into the Pacific, China and the PLAN have chosen to engage the U.S. on its own terms rather than focus on more likely scenarios.
It is also debatable whether China’s view of carriers and their use is outdated. A recent Global Times piece described them as the dominant force of the oceans, which is understandable, but ignored the fact that there has not been a carrier-on-carrier battle since World War II. The closest the world has come since was in the Falklands, where the Argentinian carrier Veinticinco de Mayo could not get enough deck speed to launch its jets against the British task force. Beyond that, carriers have been used overwhelmingly for force projection at or beyond the shoreline, not as a means of establishing sea control.
What makes assessing China’s carrier programme so difficult is that we have no real idea what the world will look like by the time it is fully realized decades from now. It must also be noted that carriers are a sign of national prestige, and like nuclear weapons they don’t have to be used in anger to draw attention. In fact, they are far more useful for diplomatic signalling and intimidation, which seems to be the limit of the Liaoning’s first and no doubt future forays.
However, by embarking on such a long term and ambitious programme, China is demonstrating not only a vision of its future world role, but also an ability to think strategically far beyond the temporal constraints that afflict most Western actors.
Alexander Stafford is a geopolitical and defense affairs writer specialising in naval and maritime issues, insurgencies, military history and strategy. He is a graduate of King’s College London’s War Studies programme who has spent several years based in the Asia Pacific region.
Photo Credit: People’s Liberation Army Navy