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China's Aircraft Carriers: Full Steam Ahead?

By Jeff M. Smith
The Diplomat
February 7, 2017


I first visited Hainan Island six years ago, part of an annual exchange of delegations my think tank, the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC), has been conducting with China since 1994. Led by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers, the January 2011 delegation chose Hainan Island for the customary "second province" visit following the obligatory deluge of meetings in Beijing. 

 
The most memorable part of the Hainan trip wasn't the substantive exchanges on maritime security with Dr. Wu Shicun's National Institute for South China Sea Studies. It was a seemingly mundane trip to an exhibition center in Haikou the next day, with its massive showroom displaying an intricately detailed model of Hainan Island. Above the display a propaganda video espoused the virtues of China as a maritime power as a video clip of three aircraft carriers steaming across the Pacific filled an enormous theater screen. At a time China was still downplaying its maritime ambitions - the shell of a Russian aircraft carrier it bought in 1998 was still notionally being re-fitted as a "floating casino" - the image lingered. 
 
This past August, I returned to Hainan on another AFPC delegation and the same image didn't seem nearly as ambitious or shocking. Six months after our delegation departed in 2011, the Chinese military finally admitted the "floating casino" was a ruse and the Varyag - since redubbed the Liaoning - was being retrofitted as China's first aircraft carrier. 
 
In recent months, China's aircraft carrier program reached a series of milestones that should dispel any doubts about its ambitions to become legitimate global maritime power. Most notably, last November the Liaoning was declared "combat ready" and has since taken a prolonged victory lap around the Western Pacific. The Liaoning was purchased from Russia by a Chinese "travel agency" in 1998 and towed from Ukraine in 2001 before entering service with the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in 2012. A Soviet-era Kuznetsov-class warship, at 60,000 tons the Liaoning is far smaller and less capable than America's 100,000-ton Nimitz-class nuclear supercarriers. However, it dwarfs Japan's 30,000-ton helicopter carriers and India's 45,000-ton Vikramaditya. 
 
The Liaoning's maiden voyage to Hainan Island and the South China Sea occurred in 2013 just a few months after entering service but its recent tour was a different beast. With PLAN chief Adm. Wu Shengli aboard and five escort vessels in tow, the Liaoning journeyed through the Taiwan Strait, Yellow Sea, South China Sea, and Sea of Japan. After live-fire exercises in the Bohai Sea, on Christmas Day the Liaoning passed through the Miyako Strait, symbolically crossing the "first island chain" toward the deep waters of the Pacific. The flotilla then "rounded east and south of Taiwan" before it sailed "up the west side of the median line of the [Taiwan] strait," forcing Taiwan to scramble fighter jets when it crossed the island's air defense identification zone. 
 
Before venturing to the South China Sea the Liaoning made a pit stop at Hainan Island where China recently constructed the world's largest aircraft carrier dock. The Sanya naval complex is reportedly now capable of hosting a pair of aircraft carriers simultaneously; its 700-meter dock is nearly double the size of the 400-meter docks used by the U.S. in Japan and Norfolk, Virginia. 
 
Eager to maximize anxiety over the Liaoning's voyage, China's nationalist mouthpiece, the Global Times, suggested the carrier should "test" the "response of major world powers to China's buildup of its navy." 
 
The Chinese fleet will cruise to the Eastern Pacific sooner or later. When China's aircraft carrier fleet appears in offshore areas of the U.S. one day, it will trigger intense thinking about maritime rules. If the fleet is able to enter areas where the U.S. has core interests, the situation when the U.S. unilaterally imposes pressure on China will change. The Liaoning and its fleet is expected to experience the cruel geopolitical competition. 
 
In closing, the article casually urged Beijing to consider "setting up navy supply points in South America right now." China's official media outlets were more sanguine but equally hypocritical. 
 
At a time the PLAN has brazenly violated international law by challenging U.S. freedom of navigation, China's foreign ministry declared: "Our Liaoning should enjoy in accordance with the law freedom of navigation and overflight as set by international law." 
 
Not to be ignored, in recent weeks China's second aircraft carrier (the first built exclusively by Beijing) seized back some of the spotlight with news the first of two Shandong-class carriers will be ready for sea-trials this year. Reports suggest the Shandong-1 will "become the flagship of the North Sea Fleet and the East Sea Fleet," though there is speculation it may be based "near the South China Sea." 
 
Meanwhile, this week Defense News reported last October China completed construction of two simulated carrier deck runways at its Huludao airbase in Liaoning province, where the Shandong-1 is currently under construction. (To confuse matters, the Liaoning's homeport is in Shandong province; the Shandong-1 is being built in Liaoning province.) Huludao houses the 20 J-15s China has begun producing, a carrier-based fourth-generation fighter aircraft based off the Russian Sukhoi. 
 
The Shandong-1 will share the Liaoning's dated ski-jump short-take off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) launch system, inferior in almost every way to the steam catapult CATOBAR system on America's Nimitz-class carriers (and those operated by France and Brazil). Reports suggest China's second indigenous carrier, the Shandong-2, is likely to use the CATOBAR system so it was unsurprising to see one of the test runways at Huludao outfitted with a steam catapult system. China reportedly reverse engineered the system from an Australian carrier, the HMAS Melbourne, which was "sold for scrap to a Chinese company in 1985." 
 
Far more surprising, defense analysts believe the second test runway is outfitted with an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). EMALS represents the first generational leap in carrier-based launch technology in over 40 years. Still under development in the United States, Washington intends to outfit its new Ford-class carriers with EMALS, which carries several advantages over CATOBAR systems: it's lighter, more energy efficient, less costly and difficult to maintain, and puts less stress on launching aircraft. 
 
Last June, Chinese military expert Yin Zhou raised eyebrows with the claim China is "as good at that technology [EMALS] as the United States." Analysts quickly dismissed the claim as wildly optimistic. I'm not so sure. As recent advances in its carrier program suggest, you underestimate China's maritime power, capabilities, and ambitions at your own risk. 
 
Jeff M. Smith is the Director of Asian Security Programs and the Kraemer Strategy Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

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Related Categories: Military; China; China and East Asia Program

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