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China’s first homebuilt carrier sails: so what?

Soon, China will be the only country other than the US to operate more than one large aircraft carrier.

A still from a Chinese TV report about the first voyage of the new aircraft carrier.
A still from a Chinese TV report about the first voyage of the new aircraft carrier.

For weeks now, the online community that follows Chinese military affairs has speculated about photos indicating China’s first homebuilt aircraft carrier, known for the moment as the Type-001A, would sail for the first time. The carrier looked finished, cleaning crews appeared to be making final preparations, and navy personnel were seen boarding the ship in large numbers.

Once upon a time, the job of getting photos of new Chinese military equipment was done secretly by spies on the ground and satellites high above. That work continues, of course, but these days it is supplemented by local enthusiasts who post images on Chinese social media channels of new weapons systems taken at their local airfields and shipyards, which then find their way various Twitter accounts and English-language forums, such as SinoDefence.

On Sunday, these forums showed unmistakeable images of China’s new carrier finally moving away from shore under its own power. In larger strategic terms, what does it mean?

1. China has built its own aircraft carrier. Does this mean China is now competing with the US as a global military power?

Far from it. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the US spent US$611.2 billion on defence in 2016 while China spent $215.7 billion. In raw measures of military power, such as numbers of nuclear weapons, foreign bases, aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, and forces that can be deployed at short notice anywhere on Earth, the US and China are not in the same league.

In fact, China is probably not trying to catch up. There’s not much evidence China aims to have global military capabilities on a par with the US. But China almost certainly wants to be the leading power in the Asia-Pacific, and given that the Chinese economy is already roughly as large as America’s, that should be achievable, at least in terms of the cost to its budget.

2. Does China have two aircraft carriers in its navy now?

Not quite yet. Yes, China already has a refitted ex-Soviet carrier in service. This new ship was launched about a year ago and has now commenced sea trials, which means its propulsion, navigation, and safety systems are being checked out.

Then there’s the long process of integrating the ship’s air fleet by testing its ability to operate various types of aircraft in different conditions. The carrier is expected to enter PLA Navy service in 2019 or 2020.

When it does, China will be the only country other than the US to operate more than one large aircraft carrier. That club used to be much bigger (during the Vietnam War, Australia had two carriers), but these days it’s pretty exclusive. Eventually, the UK and India will each have two large carriers also, and maybe Russia, although that’s a long shot. China is not expected to stop at two, and in fact the third and subsequent carriers will be larger and more powerful than the first two ships.

3. How good is this ship?

It’s not as good as any of the US Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers, which are larger, carry more aircraft, and can launch these aircraft faster and with heavier payloads. US Navy carriers are nuclear-powered, giving them almost infinite range and endurance, and the US has decades of experience, including countless combat operations.

But matching the US may not be the point, at least not yet. These carriers will be useful in the Asia-Pacific, where China already has the biggest navy, with the margin of superiority likely to grow. And in the South China Sea, where Beijing’s potential adversaries have weak air and naval forces, the modest capability provided by this new carrier and its sister ship, Liaoning, may be enough to tip the balance.

4. Why does the front of the ship angle up like that?

That’s colloquially known as a “ski-jump”. Aircraft carriers are big, but for large aircraft there’s not much space to gather speed and lift for take-offs. In order to make sure aircraft don’t dive into the water as they leave the deck, the ski-jump helps generate just enough lift to ensure a successful take-off.

It’s simple technology (no moving parts), but less effective than the “catapults” used by the US and French navies, which hurl aircraft off the ship at much higher speeds, meaning they can operate larger aircraft carrying more fuel and more weapons and sensors. They can also launch more sorties. Altogether, that means much more combat capability.

China’s next carrier, rumoured to be under construction already, will also have catapult take-off technology.

5. Are aircraft carriers even useful nowadays, or are they just floating targets?

An important question, and a huge debate among naval strategists. The irony here is that the country which has done more to bring the viability of aircraft carriers into question is China, through the development of its so-called anti-access/area denial strategy. China has developed a vast array of anti-ship weapons, among them its “carrier killer” DF-21, the first ballistic anti-ship missile.

So if China has been so effective at making carriers vulnerable, why invest billions in building its own? Well, we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that it is a mistake – goodness knows governments (and military brass) make plenty of those. This could be a giant exercise in bureaucratic warfare by the PLA Navy, or an ego-boosting exercise by China’s leaders, or a government make-work scheme to protect shipyard jobs (it could never happen here …).

But assuming China has a plan, what could it be? Well, as vulnerable as carriers now are to what we might call a “peer adversary” with advanced anti-ship weapons, it is also clear from America’s experience over the past few decades that carriers can be incredibly useful against countries that don’t have such weapons – like Iraq, for example, or Afghanistan or Serbia.

So China may think carriers will be useful not to face down the US, but against much smaller countries.

Video still courtesy of East Pendulum.

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