“Building a second as-yet-unnamed aircraft carrier”

An interesting piece  in Foreign Policy argues that China will become an aircraft superpower, “On Year’s Eve, the official People’s Daily confirmed an ill-kept secret: that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is building a second as-yet-unnamed aircraft carrier to serve alongside the Liaoning, the refitted Soviet-era carrier that joined the PLAN fleet in 2012. This is a homecoming of sorts for me. My earliest Foreign Policy essay, in 2011, explored why China wanted carriers in the first place. Fear, honour, interest — the primal motives that spurred China to overhaul a 1980s-vintage hulk for active duty — remain at work today. Strategist Edward Luttwak helps explain why Beijing wants additional flattops and how it may use them for political gain. In his 1974 book, The Political Uses of Sea Power, he wrote that ships are more than engines of war. In peacetime, they are tokens of national commitment, useful for compelling, deterring, or reassuring in crises short of war. Deploying them to trouble spots telegraphs resolve, putting allies, prospective antagonists, and bystanders on notice that the leadership is prepared to use decisive force to get its way”.

Holmes goes on to write that “The People’s Daily claims it will be “totally different” from the Liaoning. (Beijing paid $20 million to purchase the Liaoning; it’s impossible to estimate how much it spent on it afterward or how much it will spend on the second carrier.) Colour me skeptical. Unless the PLAN has concluded that the Soviet design is junk, the new flattop will derive from the Liaoning. It will constitute an incremental improvement, incorporating lessons learned from operating China’s first aircraft carrier. It will not be altogether different — nor should it be. Navies learn by operating ships on the high seas”.

He suggests that the new ship will be about 50,000 tons but this is not as simple as it sounds, “Ships have “light,” “standard,” and “full” displacements. Light refers to the vessel’s weight when no people, stores, fuel, or ammunition are on board — in other words, its empty weight. And full means the hull with a full crew and full complement of supplies. Standard lies between. Which is it for China’s carrier? No one has said — and this is a distinction with a difference. Once upon a time, I was a damage-control officer in an Iowa-class battleship, responsible for monitoring how the ship’s displacement changed as fuel was burned or replenished, stores and ammunition were consumed or loaded, and so on. Our light-load displacement was about 45,000 tons and our full-load displacement about 58,000 tons — a roughly 29 percent difference in tonnage. By muddling the terminology, it is possible to convey a false impression about a ship’s size and power. Transpose that insight to China’s carrier project. If the new flattop weighs 50,000 tons when full, it has roughly the same dimensions as the U.S. Navy’s latest amphibious helicopter carrier, the USS America. If the PLAN carrier is about 50,000 tons when empty, it’s about the same size as the Liaoning, which displaces around 55,000 tons when light but up to 65,000 at full — comparable to the USS Midway, the first U.S. supercarrier. An amphibious transport is a far cry from a supercarrier”.

He argues that “The safest guess is that the PLAN is honouring its tradition of fleet experimentation while undertaking aircraft carrier development. In all likelihood that means a ship displacing around 65,000 tons, comparable to the Liaoning and the USS Midway — a vessel that rendered good service as recently as Operation Desert Storm in 1991. It has laid the keel for an improved Liaoning, while spokesmen are using lowball figures to describe its dimensions. If events bear out that guess, the ship will sport roughly the same “air wing,” or complement of aircraft — any carrier’s major striking arm. Liaoning’s air wing consists of about 25 fighter jets and about 20 helicopters. The new vessel will probably carry about the same aircraft complement”.

Crucially he asks, “How will China use its new flattop? Well, this will be the PLAN’s first genuinely operational carrier. The navy has employed the Liaoning mainly as a training vessel, grooming China’s first corps of naval aviators while acclimating fleet sailors to operating in carrier task forces. Both functions are crucial. Launching and landing on heaving flight decks is extremely stressful — witness studies showing that aviators’ hearts pound harder when landing aboard ship than in combat. Making such intricate endeavours routine takes practice. And ship drivers need practice as well. Aircraft carriers are the centerpieces of carrier task forces. A flattop, that is, steams in company with a retinue of escort ships — destroyers, frigates, logistics vessels, and the like. It needs this entourage to protect against surface, subsurface, or aerial attack while supplying the “beans, bullets, and black oil” that sustain equipment and crews during high-seas operations”.

Worryingly he writes “It’s worth speculating about how many carriers China will build. My guess is China is building toward a seven-carrier fleet, because that would let the PLAN keep using the Liaoning as a training ship while operating six fleet carriers. That sounds like a lot; the U.S. Navy has only 10. (The United Kingdom’s Royal Navy is building two flattops of about the same dimensions as the Liaoning, but no other navy operates more than one.) Using USS Forrestal, the U.S. Navy’s first true supercarrier, as a measuring stick, it will probably take the PLAN at least four years to finish its new ship. The Forrestal was ordered in 1951 and commissioned in 1955. By that time, of course, U.S. shipyards had amassed considerable expertise turning out smaller, more rudimentary vessels of the type — speeding up the design and construction process. Chinese yards could work more slowly since this constitutes their first outing in carrier construction. Does this mean China intends to rampage throughout East and South Asia, or even beyond? Not necessarily. An old folk saying holds that “two is one and one is none.” In other words, the prudent handyman always keeps a spare widget handy. The logic of redundancy applies to navies as well — except that navies need at least three hulls to keep one constantly ready for sea. There’s a rhythm to naval operations, maintenance, and training”.

He goes on to argue that “No armed force with superpower ambitions relishes keeping its commitments only intermittently. A six-carrier fleet would let the PLAN keep two vessels ready for sea at all times while sustaining a viable cycle of maintenance, training, and sea duty. This would open up new operational vistas for China. For instance, one carrier task force could patrol the waters within the first island chain — the offshore islands running from Japan south through Taiwan and the Philippines — upholding Beijing’s maritime territorial claims while reminding fellow Asians of who’s boss. Beijing could dispatch the other combat-ready unit for expeditionary duty in, say, the Indian Ocean, maintaining a standing presence in a region of vital economic importance. If three is one, six is two, plus an extra to train new naval aviators. Ergo, a seven-carrier fleet! Suppose Beijing makes good on this vision. How will it use naval air power to fulfill political purposes? No sane leadership covets war, an enterprise fraught with peril, hardship, and heavy costs. Better to win without fighting. Luttwak observes that governments use ships as implements of “naval suasion,” influencing “allies, adversaries, or neutrals” through “the existence, display, manipulation, or symbolic use” of seagoing fleets”.

He ends “the message broadcast from Beijing is stark: Buck China’s will, and you incur fearful consequences. The message will come through more and more clearly as the PLAN fills out its carrier fleet — building up the capacity to maintain a standing carrier presence in offshore waters. If the United States and its Asian allies want to counteract China’s flattop diplomacy, they need to venture some naval suasion of their own. China wants to dishearten prospective foes through naval capability and shows of political resolve. But the allies can firm up their own naval capacity and alliance solidarity. They can dissuade Beijing if they can sow doubt about China’s inevitable triumph in a trial of arms. They can deflate the threat implicit in PLAN task forces — and uphold their interests and purposes. Take heart — and act.

 

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