Russia and China: Planning to Build Aircraft Carriers Together?

The Buzz

Could Beijing and Moscow’s budding friendship be moving towards the joint development of some of the most sophisticated types of naval vessels on the planet?

A recent report may indicate that China and Russia might be considering a big leap in military cooperation: the possibility of jointly developing an aircraft carrier.

Such an idea was raised in a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal near the very end of an article detailing Moscow’s struggles to develop advanced military hardware thanks to economic challenges.

The piece states specifically, “Russia has touted what it calls a strategic alliance with China, which may develop into plans to build a joint aircraft carrier.”

The articles continues, explaining that:

“A defense industry official, however, said China is raising its demands, and wants a controlling stake in the project.

‘We both tout the benefits of our friendship,’ the official said. ‘But the truth is, the Chinese are playing hardball.’”

With Russia now on the cusp of finally selling China the advanced Su-35 fighter, could both sides now be contemplating co-development of what some see as the ultimate weapon on the high-seas?

Reasons For and Against:

There are a number of reasons why Moscow and Beijing may, or may not, go for such a deal: 


The reasons why Moscow would avoid such a partnership are straightforward.

First, Russia might simply not have the money for such a financially draining endeavor. Modern aircraft carriers cost billions of dollars to design, test and manufacture. Such a possibility seems silly when one considers that Moscow is struggling to modernize its military with other expensive pieces of hardware in the face of economic sanctions and sagging oil prices.

Conversely, Russia might be tempted into such a partnership if China was willing to help finance and develop Moscow’s efforts to create a new supercarrier. Such a carrier, widely reported in the press, would easily cost billions of dollars to create and could drain Russia’s military budget. But if Beijing was willing to pony up much of the costs, with Moscow willing to share the technology, it could prove to be quite tempting.

However, would Russia really want to give even more advanced military technology to China that could someday be used against them if relations with Beijing were to sour?


Beijing could be swayed to work with Russia on a carrier project for a number of different reasons.

Aircraft Carrier development for China has been a top priority for several decades. As I noted back in 2011:

“Back in 1985, China purchased the World War II era Australian carrier HMAS Melbourne for a disposal fee, only to halt its break up for several years to study its design. The Chinese also purchased three Soviet era carriers in the 1990’s from Russia and the Ukraine: the Kiev, Minsk and Varyag. The Kiev and Minsk were indeed eventually turned into amusement parks. However, the Chinese studied both carriers carefully in their ongoing efforts to develop carrier technology. While both carriers possessed nowhere near the capabilities of modern US nuclear carriers, any secrets or technology the Chinese could learn on the cheap would have proved useful for later vessels. Spending millions initially instead of billions later so they could learn from others’ successes and failures would only have benefitted Chinese military planners and speeded up their efforts.”

But Beijing’s efforts did not stop there:

“...The Varyag, the most famous of their ‘casino’ acquisitions, was purchased [from Ukraine] in March 1998 for $20 million dollars. The Chinese company that purchased the vessel had strong ties to the Chinese military, and the then Varyag would become trapped in limbo for over 15 months. Turkish officials wouldn’t allow the carrier to move through the Dardanelles, citing a long-standing rule of not allowing carriers passage through the straits.  It has been rumoured that China then offered Turkey more than $360 million dollars in a nicely crafted ‘tourism and economic aid package’ to allow the passage of the presumed floating casino."

But the Varyag never was kitted out with slot machines or craps tables [to turn the carrier into a floating casino,as was the supposed reason for the sale]. Instead, the Soviet era carrier was completely stripped down and recreated into a more modern aircraft carrier.”

To this day, China has only the rebuilt former Varyag, now rechristened Liaoning, to show despite all its years of effort. Even if China were to build multiple carriers, with Russia or on its own, one must remember that a carrier is not a stand-alone weapons platform. One must protect the carrier with assets that can ward off submarines, missiles and other forms of military power that could sink the floating airfield—costing additional billions more. At a time when the Chinese economy is starting to sour, would Beijing want to throw billions of dollars into such a project?

Is the Age of the Carrier Over?

There could be an even more powerful reason that a Sino-Russo carrier development project never gets off the ground: the march of technology.

As we have seen from China itself, many nations have developed weaponry specifically targeting aircraft carriers. While various types of missile platforms have been around for decades that have challenged the carrier’s dominance, their proliferation to many countries around the world—and in larger numbers—could certainly be an argument for Beijing and Moscow to spend their money elsewhere.

As Jerry Hendrix noted in a report for the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) back in 2013 when talking about China’s DF-21D, or "carrier-killer" and the threat it posed to U.S. carriers:

“Using a maneuverable reentry vehicle (MaRV) placed on a CSS-5 missile, China’s Second Artillery Division states that its doctrine will be to saturate a target with multiple warheads and multiple axis attacks…”

Hendrix then notes the frightening cost advantage:

“While the United States does not know the cost of this weapons system, some analysts have estimated its procurement costs at $5 million to $11 million. Assuming the conservative, high-end estimate of $11 million per missile gives an exchange ratio of $11 million to $13.5 billion, which means that China could build 1,227 DF-21Ds for every carrier the United States builds going forward.”

So the question seems quite simple: Why would China place billions of dollars into carriers with Russia or even on its own when it is working to undermine the military utility of such a weapons platform in the first place?

Closing Thoughts:

Call me skeptical, but I don’t think we are going to see Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin standing dockside glouting over a jointly developed aircraft carrier anytime soon. While both nations have many areas in which to strengthen cooperation, carriers aren’t likely to be one of them.

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Executive Editor of The National Interest and a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest. He is the co-author and editor of the recent Center for the National Interest report: Tackling Asia’s Greatest Challenges - A U.S. Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula and on Linkedin.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Is China Getting Ready to Develop the World's Fastest Plane?

The Buzz

China’s military over the last twenty years has worked at breakneck speed to develop weapons platforms that have created a certain amount of concern in capitals all over Asia and in Washington. And if reports prove correct, Beijing might be able to add one more military marvel to its list of accomplishments—the world’s fastest plane.

According to various reports, China is planning to develop a domestically crafted turbofan ramjet engine. Such an engine—at least in theory—could be the foundation for a jet faster than the legendary U.S. SR-71 spyplane, the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft, retired in the late 1990s.

The WantChinaTimes reports that:

“An Aug. 25 report in Beijing-based newspaper China Aviation News praised the engine division of Xi'an-based aeronautic and aerospace firm AVIC Qingan Group for its achievements in several projects, raising speculation that China may be preparing to develop an aircraft with a higher speed than the US Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird strategic reconnaissance aircraft, according to Shanghai-based news web portal New Outlook.

The report mentions a planned project which would see the development of China's first domestically-made turbofan-ramjet combined cycle engine, designed for an unnamed aircraft. The description of this engine suggests something resembling the Pratt & Whitney J58 variable cycle engine used by the SR-71 Blackbird, which is also often described as a turbofan-ramjet engine, due to its unique bleed from the compressor to the afterburner which allows for increased thrust at high speeds.”

Indeed, the report goes on to note:

“A source close to the PLA Air Force was cited by New Outlook as stating that this is part of a project to develop a manned supersonic aircraft, currently in the preparation stages at a domestic research institute. The aircraft is expected to have a top speed faster than the Blackbird on completion, according to the source, although the project is yet to be formally launched.”

While China is likely years away from developing its own SR-71 style spyplane, and other types of intelligence gathering (think modern satellites, drones, etc.) have largely removed the need for such an aircraft, the “blackbird” still holds a special place in many aviators’ hearts around the globe—especially those who flew it. And in fact, America might be developing its successor.

“The SR-71 served six presidents, protecting America for a quarter of a century. Unbeknownst to most of the country, the plane flew over North Vietnam, Red China, North Korea, the Middle East, South Africa, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, Libya, and the Falkland Islands,” explained Brian Shaul, a former SR-71 pilot in a recent article for Gizmodo.

“On a weekly basis, the SR-71 kept watch over every Soviet nuclear submarine and mobile missile site, and all of their troop movements. It was a key factor in winning the Cold War.”  notes Shaul.

“I am proud to say I flew about 500 hours in this aircraft. I knew her well. She gave way to no plane, proudly dragging her sonic boom through enemy backyards with great impunity. She defeated every missile, outran every MiG, and always brought us home. In the first 100 years of manned flight, no aircraft was more remarkable.”

For China, Multiple Motives:

While America’s SR-71 is long since retired—in fact, I have been able to see the mighty Cold War plane up close right outside of Washington—the development of such a capability for China might serve a number of functions.

For starters, any developments in the domestic production of more-sophisticated and reliable jet engines would be a boon for Beijing. At the moment, China is highly reliant on Russia for fighter engines, and in fact, reports indicate its J-20 fifth-generation fighter is powered by Moscow’s advanced engines. Being able to develop top-tier engines for for a SR-71-style plane would be a major step up for China’s engine manufacturers.

One must also factor in the prestige of developing a plane that could very well take the speed crown away from America. Imagine the plane being used in all sorts of propaganda-style footage for the People’s Liberation Army or flying over Beijing during military parades in the future—a sure sign of China taking its place among the great powers.

Now if the Chinese economy would just cooperate.

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Executive Editor of The National Interest and a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest. He is the co-author and editor of the recent Center for the National Interest report:Tackling Asia’s Greatest Challenges - A U.S. Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula and on Linkedin.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

The Real Threat of Chinese Nationalism

The Buzz

On Monday, China’s Shanghai Composite Index dropped 8.5 percent, the largest percentage fall since the financial crisis hit in 2007. Hours earlier it was reported that Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, would not attend a ceremony in China on September 3 marking the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War Two. So far, China’s economic slowdown has been seen as separate from the country’s antagonisms with Japan. Both domestic and antiforeign discontent might concern China watchers, and both might be simmering at the moment, but each registers as its own threat, requiring its own policy response. This is wrong. What connects these issues is the worrying role popular nationalism has taken on in China in the era after Mao Zedong and, more recently, after Deng Xiaoping.

All of this comes on the eve of a state visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping to the United States in September. Xi lands in Washington as the leader who has, according to President Obama, “consolidated power faster and more comprehensively than probably anybody since Deng Xiaoping." No force has been more important in Xi’s power grab than nationalism. He has presided over a country that has stoked patriotic fervor as well as antagonized its neighbors and the United States. The most immediate result of stirring up national sentiment has been to strengthen Xi’s power within the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. With this backstop of popular support, Xi has steadfastly pursued a set of programs, even amid some opposition. For example, his anticorruption purge has continued even after an authority as prominent as former president Jiang Zemin warned against it becoming too ambitious.

Nationalism has worked for Xi. So far, patriotic, mass support has protected him from a strong, public challenge by the military or the party. But nationalism in China has an uncertain and at times combustible relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its leaders in Beijing. In China, street-level, unchecked nationalism—nationalism en masse—is a precarious threat both to the CCP and to regional and global stability overall.

In 2012, Xi took control of a China unthinkable without Deng Xiaoping. By opening up its economy and jettisoning Mao-era programs, China created an average of 10 percent growth per year over the thirty years beginning with 1980. Millions were brought from subsistence living to a point where median income now approaches a “middle-income trap.” As if to acknowledge this change, Xi reiterated his commitment to Deng’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” shortly after coming to power.

But this phrase, “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” is by now, of course, “nonsense,” China scholar Roderick MacFarquhar said at the time. Communism no longer connects the nation; it is no longer a unifying ideology. Instead, China now has

"No ideology. No sense of what the country is about. And the only way, and it is a very dangerous way, that they can achieve some kind of unity between party, state and people, is the dangerous route of nationalism."

Over the last two-and-a-half decades, and with the strict tenets of communism shed as a unifying ideology, nationalism has been paired with robust economic growth in China to legitimize the country’s leadership. Both contributed to an “authoritarian resilience,” as China scholar Jessica Chen Weiss describes it. Now, nationalism and economics have begun to decouple as growth has slowed and stocks have tumbled. Comparisons with Deng have turned from complimentary of Xi to concerning for China as a whole. “The country is now going through a crisis of transition, unparalleled since Deng Xiaoping set out to put clear water between China’s future and the Mao era,” writes George Magnus, an associate at Oxford University’s China Centre and senior advisor to UBS, in the Financial Times.

What connects the faltering economy with the animosity between China and Japan is that antiforeign protests are some of the only forms of mass, organized protest that have been permitted to take place in China. As Weiss points out, while anti-Japanese demonstrations were repressed in the 1990s and 2000s, they nonetheless flared up in 1985, 2005, 2010 and 2012. Moreover, she notes, the 1985 anti-Japanese protests were early precursors of the pro-democracy protests of 1986 and 1989, giving participants much needed experience in mass mobilization. Weiss explains what the CCP knows well, that “[e]ven strong authoritarian governments may have difficulty reining in protests that are widely seen as patriotic and legitimate."

History shows that Chinese officials quickly repress demonstrations about domestic issues. This is less the case with antiforeign protests, which not only can have an intrinsic, patriotic legitimacy leaders find difficult to counter, but also, as Weiss argues, can have a value for China’s leaders to signal resolve in diplomacy.

In a statement released for the anniversary of the end of World War II on August 15, Japanese prime minister Abe said that his “heart is rent with the utmost grief” about the damage done by his country. But he also emphasized that “[w]e must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.” This statement joins a list of recent perceived slights, including a row this summer over the treatment of the war in Japanese textbooks, that irk many Chinese.

Chinese-Japanese tensions have eased somewhat since the worst days of 2012, which Weiss says saw the largest anti-Japanese demonstrations since relations were normalized in 1972. Of the 287 prefecture cities Weiss and a colleague studied in 2012, nearly three-quarters saw street protests. Should Xi tolerate another spate of anti-Japanese protests, he would be using popular sentiment to signal to Japanese officials that China’s avenues for compromise are few. Importantly, this wish to signal resolve in diplomacy is weighed against the threat that such protests will spiral out of control, turning to domestic grievances and turning against Beijing. In this way, any anti-Japanese protests ostensibly about the Second World War are a potential rallying point for discontent about the present. “In current American usage,” the scholar Bernard Lewis noted, “the phrase ‘that’s history’ is commonly used to dismiss something as unimportant, of no relevance to current concerns.” Not so in much of the world, and not so in China now.

China’s leaders, Xi chief among them, can wield nationalism for their own ends. And now, leaders may wish to double down on nationalism as both the economy and the legitimacy the government has gained in the post-Deng era from a strong economy weaken. But nationalism isn’t an easy tool to control. As Weiss points out,

"the past two Chinese governments fell to nationalist movements that accused them of failing to defend the country from foreign encroachments: the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Manchu leaders of the Qing dynasty."

Going into this autumn, policy makers should be mindful of what is happening in China’s streets, as well as what Xi does and says before and during his trip to Washington.

John Richard Cookson is assistant managing editor of The National Interest.

Image:Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsChina RegionsAsia

Russia's Lethal Stealth PAK-FA T-50 Fighter: High Hopes, Big Price Tag

The Buzz

Reports in the Russian media, if accurate, have made a bold claim: Moscow’s PAK-FA T-50 fighter could be much closer to joining Russia’s air force than many expected. However, economic pressures and technological challenges could be a big bottleneck to the program going forward.

In an article by Russia Today, it was reported that “in 2016 the Russian Air Force will get ready to put the first production models of the stealth fighter jet into service.”

RT added: “All weapons and technical innovation in design for the PAK-FA are promised to be ready by 2020, which, among others, will include 12 types of missiles alone, six of which are to be ready by 2017. Some of the PAK-FA missiles will be hypersonic, with most designed specially to fit into fighter’s inner bays so as not to interfere with its stealth characteristics.”

Many in Western circles feel the advanced fifth-generation fighter could be quite capable and a big upgrade for Russia’s air force.

“The analysis that I have seen on the PAK-FA indicates a pretty sophisticated design that is at least equal to, and some have said even superior to U.S. fifth-generation aircraft,” former U.S. Air Force intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula told TNI back in December of last year. “It certainly has greater agility with its combination of thrust vectoring, all moving tail surfaces, and excellent aerodynamic design, than does the F-35.”

Others who are in the know also agree the jet could prove quite sophisticated, rivaling the best Western fighter jets.

“Performance-wise it certainly looks to compete with the Raptor,” one senior military official with extensive experience on U.S. fifth-generation fighters told TNI, also back in December.

But Can Russia Afford It?:

While the PAK-FA certainly has potential, the biggest challenge—just like with the American F-22 and F-35 fifth-generation fighter programs—seems to be cost.

Several months ago, Russia cut its initial order from over fifty planes to just twelve. The most likely reasons for such a move? Western sanctions that are taking a big bite out of the Russian economy along with low oil prices.

Yuri Borisov, Russia’s deputy defense minister for armaments, explained back in March that  “Given the new economic conditions, the original plans may have to be adjusted.” He noted that “It is better to have the PAK FA kept as a reserve, and later move forward, while squeezing everything possible for now out of the 4+ generation fighters.”

And Just How Good Will the “Tech” Be?

While cost will be a factor, there is also the question of how strongly Russia can put together one of the big advantages the F-35 seems to hold: sensor and data fusion, along with advanced avionics.

“The real question is can the Russians achieve the same degree of data fusion and networking capabilities of the F-22A and F-35—right now I’d put my money on the U.S. and our allies in that regard,” Deptula explained to TNI in December.

When it comes to the question of avionics, an industry source told TNI the PAK-FA is closer to a Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or F-16E/F Block 60 than an F-22 or F-35. “Some may claim that the PAK-FA is a 5th gen. fighter, but it's more of a 4.5 gen. fighter by U.S. standards,” the industry official said.

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Executive Editor of The National Interest and a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest. He is the co-author and editor of the recent Center for the National Interest report: Tackling Asia’s Greatest Challenges - A U.S. Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula and on Linkedin.

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

Revealed: The Lessons of Khobar Towers

Paul Pillar

Saudi Arabia reportedly has taken custody of Ahmed al-Mughassil, accused of being a central figure in the truck bombing at Khobar Towers in eastern Saudi Arabia in 1996 in which 19 American airmen died. The report immediately raises questions about the timing of this story, the motives behind it, and the circumstances of the reported arrest. Supposedly Mughassil had been living in Beirut and somehow, in a way as yet unexplained, was turned over to the Saudis. It is probably too much of a coincidence for all of this to be unrelated to efforts, including by the Saudis, to remind people of all the reasons they should dislike Iran, as the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program is under consideration in the U.S. Congress. (Investigation of the attack at Khobar eventually led to the conclusion that it was perpetrated by Shia Saudi militants working with Iranian military officers and Iran's ally Lebanese Hezbollah.) But set those questions aside and consider some legitimate lessons that the Khobar episode has for present issues.

Notwithstanding Saudi Arabia's recent tough talk about Iran, and the (mistaken) interpretation of leaked cables supposedly showing that Saudi leaders would like the United States to cut off heads of snakes, the preferences and concerns in Riyadh in 1996 were much different. As David Kirkpatrick accurately recalls in his article in the New York Times about Mughassil's reported capture, Saudi leaders were worried back then that the United States would react too strongly against Iran, especially with reactions involving military force. The Saudis were trying to improve their relations with Tehran, and they did not want any U.S. response to the Khobar attack to upset that process. The Saudis thus dragged their feet in their part of the investigation, so much so that senior U.S. officials complained publicly about the inadequate Saudi cooperation. Saudi officials were reluctant to join the United States in blaming Iran even after indictments of the suspects were announced. The foot-dragging strategy worked; by the time the slow-moving investigation was completed, too much time had passed for a military response to be politically feasible, especially given the election in the meantime of the moderate Mohammad Khatami to the Iranian presidency.

Insufficient Saudi cooperation in investigating terrorism that claimed American lives on Saudi soil had already been exhibited in 1995, with the bombing of a military training facility in Riyadh in which five American advisers were killed. Saudi authorities arrested some suspects and beheaded them before the FBI had any chance to question them. The evident Saudi concern this time was not anything having to do with Iran but instead where an investigation of these suspects, who were Sunni extremists, would lead inside Saudi Arabia itself.

The Khobar Towers episode underscores how what the Saudi government says today about Iran is not some universal truth about Iranian behavior but instead a reflection of an unsurprising Saudi preference for other countries not to get friendly with its major Persian Gulf rival. What the Saudis are saying today to the United States about Iran is in no way incompatible with their undertaking again, as in the 1990s, their own rapprochement with Tehran. That is how triangular diplomacy can be used to advantage. (E.g., in Richard Nixon's time it served U.S. interests for there to be tension between the USSR and China at the same time the United States was cultivating its own relationships with each.) If there is for now a more combative Saudi tone to relations with Iran than there was in the 1990s this probably is because the Saudis themselves are being more physically combative and have become the most destabilizing element in their immediate neighborhood, particularly with the destructive fight they have picked in Yemen.

As for actual Iranian behavior, the Khobar Towers attack was the last terrorist attack against Americans in which an Iranian hand was established beyond any reasonable doubt. (And no, militia activity against U.S. troops in Iraq during the Iraq War does not invalidate that statement.) The attack was reprehensible, and a forceful response would have been appropriate. There is every reason to believe that the Clinton administration would have responded forcefully if Iranian involvement could have been established promptly in an unimpeded investigation. That same administration retaliated against Iraq with cruise missile strikes in 1993 when an investigation rapidly determined Iraqi government responsibility for an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate former president George H. W. Bush during a visit to Kuwait.

The Khobar attack was nineteen years ago—more than half the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. That regime has changed greatly in many ways, and one of those ways is that it does not do anti-U.S. terrorism any more. For those who take the “once a terrorist, always a terrorist” approach, that change won't make any difference. But that is not the approach that the United States has implicitly taken in managing its relations with many other states, groups, and individuals. And managing relations in such a way that the other party is less, rather than more, likely to slip back into terrorism because of a lack of alternative ways of competing for influence is all to the good.

Without diminishing for a moment the reprehensible nature of the attack at Khobar, one additional lesson can be drawn concerning the circumstances that stimulated it. Anti-U.S. terrorism with an Iranian dimension always involved U.S. military deployments in the Middle East. As in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, so it was in Lebanon in the 1980s, most notably with the truck bombing by Lebanese Hezbollah of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983—the deadliest terrorist attack against Americans until 9/11. Iran and its allies are by no means the only ones who react this way to the placement of U.S. military power in their neighborhoods and their homelands. The U.S. military build-up in Saudi Arabia following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990—a build-up of which the airmen who died at Khobar were still a part—was the development that most radicalized Osama bin Laden and stimulated him to take the violent anti-American course that he did.  

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East