Projecting Blue Water Power: A Chinese Aircraft Carrier?


Speculation has been rife over the past decade and a half as to whether the People’s Republic of China is going ahead with plans to build itself an aircraft carrier.  Unsurprisingly, the high level of secrecy surrounding a project of this magnitude has combined with a predictable lack of Chinese military transparency to ensure that nothing is known for sure.  There are, however, obvious strategic reasons for Chinese development of an aircraft carrier and as a consequence, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has taken several steps towards this.  It is highly probable that it is in the process of developing its own indigenous carrier capability in part based on its analysis of obsolete technology purchased from abroad.  While there are a number of constraints acting to slow development of this capability, the end yield may be two carriers similar in size and weight to the French Charles de Gaulle, ready to enter service at the end of the next decade.   

Maritime Strategy and the Case for a Chinese Aircraft Carrier
The ocean is vital to China’s development and prosperity. It is the highway through which China’s dramatically expanding trade has passed, and the channel through which its energy demands are facilitated.  The greater the expansion of Chinese economic power, the more significant the ocean becomes in providing access to world markets.  These and other maritime interests have been emphasised by China’s policy makers since the 1996 ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.  The territorial waters over which China claims to hold sovereign rights  measure more than 3 million square kilometres and within those, it is determined to exploit maritime resources and strengthen its maritime economy, which it is estimated will represent around 5 percent of China’s GDP by 2010.[1]  Accordingly, China has a direct interest in seeking a greater naval strength in order to cope with its increasingly sea-based security concerns.

‘Active Defence’ is the strategic context in which it is claimed China has placed its maritime strategy.  According to Chinese strategists, this active defence is based upon the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) historical experience of warfare, which has varied from guerrilla and limited warfare to total war and is based on an idea of strategic defence operating as active offence in the pursuit of a decisive victory.[2]  The PLA therefore has a good appreciation of the value of offensive, mobile force concentrations in defeating an adversary.  Moreover this concept combines with the strategy of conducting China’s defence offshore not simply to minimise damage to its coastal-based economy, but to gain control of wider maritime economic resources.  Active Defence and Offshore Defence provide a theoretical framework for China’s strategy on the sea that stresses two essential components: 1) Neutralisation of the enemy’s naval power through surprise, concentration, and decisiveness.  2) Flexibility and long-range capability.  These components display recognition by China’s strategists of the necessity of projecting power deep into the ocean.

The PLAN’s naval development strategy thus involves two timed objectives:  1) By 2010 it should be able to both control the sea and decisively win a war fought in the waters between the mainland coast and the first island chain (running from the Kurils in the North, through Japan, the Ryukyu islands, Taiwan, Hainan and the Spratly islands).  Its purchase of Russian Sovremenny class destroyers is helping China realise this goal.  2) Between 2010 and 2020 it may seek the capability to project its power far outside the perimeter of the first island chain far out into the Pacific Ocean

The questions, which Chinese strategists then have to answer become: how should the scope and methods of this power projection capability be defined? Is air power essential for this naval projection on the high seas?  Considering the indispensable role of air power in the modern naval campaign, the strategic effect that a naval force can contribute without an air contingent is minimal.  Proponents of the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ (RMA) recognise this, even if they dispute the long-term viability of the aircraft carrier as a strategic tool.[3]  For China, modern naval forces that can flexibly and efficiently operate on the high seas far from the cover of land-based aircraft but with the ability to effectively project power will necessarily require an aircraft carrier.  Whilst such a grand project inevitably requires years devoted to technological preparation, construction, training and systems integration, the development of a Chinese aircraft carrier is not so much a question of ‘if’, but instead, ‘what’ and ‘when’.

Progress so far
As early as 1985, Admiral Liu Huaqing, the godfather of modern Chinese naval strategy, established a pilot warships course in Guangzhou with the aim of preparing pilots to captain carriers similar to the American tradition.  Around the same time the Naval Research Institute in Shanghai was conducting feasibility studies in both a model pool and in Lake Tai.  Two years later, Australian Carrier ‘HMAS Melbourne’ was purchased for scrap, but even as late as 1994, it was still languishing outside Guangzhou, where it had been studied intensively.  Furthermore, the PLAN air force were conducting take off and landing trials on a simulated deck at a naval base of the North Sea fleet that looked suspiciously similar to the 70m flight deck of the Melbourne.  

In 1992, there followed a first attempt to purchase the incomplete Kuznetsov class Soviet carrier, the ‘Varyag’, that involved fifteen Chinese naval specialists travelling to Ukraine to conduct feasibility tests.  While this attempt failed, by 1993 Admiral Zhang Yuanhai of the PLAN had admitted that indigenous research and development was well underway.[4]  The next attempt to buy four Russian Kiev class carriers also fell through.  Then there were negotiations to purchase Conventional Take-off and Landing (CTOL) carriers from the Spanish company Empresa Nacional Bazan and later, the French carrier Clemenceau.  Again, both failed.

But in 1998, China was able to purchase the ‘Minsk’ in 1998 from a South Korean ship breaking company.  It was moved to Shenzhen to become part of a theme park called ‘Minsk world’.  In the same year, a Macao based company finally bought the ‘Varyag’, the incomplete carrier that China had first tried to buy in 1992.  The company involved claimed it intended to turn it into a floating amusement park and casino, but unsurprisingly the Macanese authorities received no licence requests and in any case, the waters around Macao turned out to be too shallow to accommodate a ship of that size.  Later investigation revealed that two directors of the purchasing company, Chong Lot, were ex-PLAN officers.[5]  In 2000 the ‘Kiev’ was purchased on condition that the ship be scrapped, but the contract was renegotiated so that it could become a tourist attraction. 

While the technology is already obsolete by Western standards, no fewer than three carriers have been brought to China in recent years for purposes of public entertainment:  One residing in ‘Minsk world’ and one at Beiyang recreational harbour.  The Varyag, however has not become a floating casino in Macao, but has instead been spotted outside a Dalian shipyard repainted in the colour scheme of the PLAN.[6] New photos even showed the condition of the vessel had improved.

 Attempted Carrier Purchases

Date

Ship

Country of Origin

Bought?

Displacement (tonnes)

1987

HMAS Melbourne

Australia

Yes

17,000

1992

Varyag

Ukraine

No

67,500

1993

2 x Kiev class

Russia

No

40,000

1995

2 x Potential CTOL Carrier

Spain

No

25,000

1995

Clemenceau

France

No

32,700

1998

Minsk

Russia

Yes

40,000

1998

Varyag

Ukraine

Yes

67,500

2000

Kiev

Russia

Yes

40,000

The Current Development Climate
Although China has a clear strategic need and has taken certain steps towards developing a carrier capability, there are a number of ongoing policy issues within China that will affect both what is finally produced and when it enters into service. 

The economic reforms that started in the late 1970s involved the military taking a back seat in the priorities of the national budget for around two decades:  National policy focused on domestic economic growth and development rather than investment in military projects.  The situation became much better from the late 1990s onwards once China’s soaring economic strength allowed more financial support to be given to the military.  The PLA’s bargaining position had also been strengthened by the perceived increase in strategic pressures and the demands of the RMA.  However financial restrictions on China’s ambition to build an aircraft carrier remained because 1) Despite cuts in manpower, the financial burden of maintaining a vast land army and air force remained huge. 2) In Chinese strategists’ eyes, there was simply so much to be done in order to recover from the negative impact of the low investment of the 1980’s. From the conquering of space and the upgrade of aircraft to the development of equipment including missiles and information technology, there are too many ongoing requirements to fulfil.  Several have taken priority over a carrier capability.

The renewed emphasis on possible conflict in the Taiwan straits has also diverted attention from development of a carrier.  Taiwan is less than 300km from the mainland and improvements in air force and missile capabilities directed over this relatively short distance are likely to prove more decisive in this theatre. 

Finally, there is the large element of strategic uncertainty that may affect what is finally produced. The goal of achieving military modernization in the near future is explicit on the Chinese national agenda. However, it is far from clear what kind of military force in general, and naval force in particular, China needs to pursue in this dramatic development process. China has closely watched what has happened in both Gulf wars and the Kosovo war, and has subsequently tried to plan the development of its own revolution in military affairs.  It is hard to conceive what form naval warfare will take over the next thirty years, and what will become the vital instrument for achieving a decisive victory on the sea. 

What and When?
Bearing the limitations in mind, there have been three major possibilities for the development of a Chinese carrier or carrier-replacing capability: 1) Delaying full development of a carrier until the revolution in military affairs ensures the obsolescence of current forms of carrier. 2) Fully commission the Varyag. 3) Develop an indigenous carrier in the medium term.

Taking into account the strategic need for a power projection capability that would need to be realised between 2010 and 2020, the PLAN will not want to wait idly until technological advances produce new power projecting capabilities that replace aircraft carriers.  Moreover, this revolution in military affairs would require an even greater financial commitment than that needed to develop a conventional carrier.  So if budgetary limits are the deciding factor, pouring money into a future, untested capability under the guise of the RMA is hardly likely to be the PLAN’s favoured option. 

Apparently, one senior strategist has suggested that a redeveloped Varyag would become China’s first commissioned aircraft carrier.[7]  It would need to be modified to house a ‘ski jump’, or could simply be kitted out as a helicopter carrier.  It is likely that such a carrier could be commissioned long before 2010, fulfilling the short term strategic need.  A project of this type would cost around $2 billion for the refit and $1.2 billion for an air wing of Mig 29ks and a few helicopters: A prohibitive figure in the short term.  The current level of technology that China could use for such a scheme would already be obsolete before launch and moreover, one carrier would not suffice strategically.  Full operational capability would require at least three carriers of this type: one deployed, one in refit, and one in re-supply.  The only reason to fully convert the Varyag would be for the sake of national prestige, but this has become a less urgent requirement for a country that has recently sent two men into orbit.  It is more likely that the Varyag is being refitted to play a role in training and testing.

It is the development of an indigenous carrier that remains by far the most likely path for Beijing.  For any indigenously produced carrier, financial constraints have ruled out the possibility of this entering into service any time before 2010.  After this date, there are broadly two possibilities:  1) a light CTOL carrier of 20,000-25,000 tonnes for operations within the first island chain similar to the British ‘Invincible’ class and 2) a heavier duty carrier of between 40,000-60,000 tonnes with longer range missiles for power projection.  A heavier class carrier such as the US Nimitz is out of the question as it would involve expenditure of the order of six to seven years of the entire PLA budget.[8]  As China’s most recent analyses have focused on the structure of the Minsk, Kiev and Varyag – all large carriers – the PLAN’s knowledge is less applicable to the building of smaller carriers.  The lengthy timescale for development allows some relief from any budgetary shortfall and the larger sized carriers would better provide the power projection capability beyond the first island chain which the active defence naval strategy calls for in the years 2010-2020.  Furthermore, a Russian report claimed the Chinese were building a 48,000 tonne carrier which they named ‘project 9935’ and as far back as 1990, a Chinese scale model of a carrier with a displacement of 40,000-50,000 tonnes was seen at a highly classified weaponry exhibition in Beijing.[9]

Such a vessel would be similar in size to the French Charles de Gaulle and would carry around 40 fixed wing jets, 20 in deck and 20 in the hangar.  These could be indigenous Chengdu J-10s, Russian bought SU-30MKKs or an as yet undeveloped alternative.  It has been estimated that a carrier platform of this kind could achieve the combat effectiveness of between 200 and 800 coastal based fighters.[10]  At least two carriers of this type would need to be in service at any one time to ensure operational effectiveness, but financial constraints ensure that no more than three are likely to be built in the first round.  Bearing in mind budgetary limitations and the time needed to develop the technology this carrier type would not enter service before 2018.

Conclusion:  the Coming Chinese Charles de Gaulle
The case for China building a power projection capability for use beyond the first island chain is solid and is indeed called for by the PLAN’s ‘active defence’ strategy.  The question is not ‘if’ the Chinese are building this power projection capability, but ‘when’.  The strategic need has been identified and will have to be catered for between 2010 and 2020.  China has already taken several steps to meeting the capability with initiatives ranging from pilot training to the purchasing and study of foreign technologies.  While constraints such as limited budgets, changes in cross-straits relations and a measure of strategic uncertainty exist, they do not put this project in doubt, but do affect its development timeframe.

Of the possible options for future carrier development, construction and commissioning of probably two, but possibly three 40,000-60,000 tonne carriers about the size of the Charles de Gaulle is the likely route that the PLAN has decided on.  Such a capability would meet the objectives of the ‘active defence’ strategy to project power into the Pacific Ocean and capitalise on the progress towards development that the PLAN has made so far.  But considering the range of constraints the project faces, these Chinese carriers are unlikely to enter service before 2018 at the earliest.  In 1996, Admiral Liu Huaqing stated ‘I will not die with my eyes closed if I do not see a Chinese aircraft carrier in front of me’.[11]  At the grand old age of 86, the admiral may not yet live to see the Chinese carrier, but he can rest assured:  It is coming.

Tong Chen
University of Reading

Justin Hempson-Jones
Studies Department, RUSI

_________________________________________________

[1] Wang Pan ‘The Blue Ocean: China’s Prospective New Eastern District’, Lanse Haiyang Kewang Danlie Zhongguo Xindongbu, Bi-Monthly Discussion Internal Edition (Banyue Tan), No. 6, 2005, pp. 38-41

[2] Outlines of Jiang Zheming’s Defense and Military Thoughts; (Jiang Zheming Guofang He Jundui Jianshe Sixiang Xuexi Gaiyao), Hunan People’s Publisher 2002, pp. 142-169

[3] Some have argued that submarines will be China’s answer for future naval warfare under the impact of the RMA. See for example: Shen Zhongchang, Zhang Haiying & Zhou Xinsheng; RMA on Naval Warfare and Navy Development (Xin Junshi Geming Yu Haizhan Ji Haijun Jianshe); Chinese Military Science, No. 1, 1996; pp. 57-60; Also: Xie Jinsong; The Impact of RMA on Submarine and Our Approach ( Xin Junshi Geming Dui Qiantin De Yingxiang Ji Women De Duice); Navy Academic Research, Vol. 118, No 3 1998; pp.22-23; Some believe that development of weapons systems in space will provide the answer; see: Teng Jianqun; What We Demand is a Spaceship not an Aircraft Carrier (Yao Feichuan Buyao Hangmu); Nov 2005; http://military.people.com.cn/GB/42969/3880371.html

[4] United Daily News 15 March 1993

[5] ‘Beijing Calms Waters for Floating Casino’, South China Morning Post, 9th September 2001

[6] Yihong Chang and Andrew Koch ‘Is China Building an Aircraft Carrier?’ in Jane’s Defence Weekly, August 2005

[7] Ibid

[8] Attributed to Professor Zhang Zhaozhong, a military expert at the National University of Defence Technology noted in Lester J Gesteland, "China Naval Experts Ponder Need For Aircraft Carrier", at http://www.chinaonline.com/industry/aviation/Archive/Secure/1999/december/c9120104.asp

[9] Shi Fei, Zhongguo junli da quishi (The general development trend of the Chinese military), Chengdu: Sichuan kexue chubanshe, 1993, pp. 12-13

[10] Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), CHI-90-106, 1st June 1990, p.30

[11] Far East Economic Review, 10th October 1996, p20




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