China's Main Mission: South China Sea, Not Syria
Don't assume that an increasingly capable China is poised to conduct American-style naval air operations over Syria just yet...
With major real news and hype over the past few days about Chinese deck aviation development, it’s time to separate fact from fiction. Doing so can move China’s current and future carriers from preconceived places in foreign minds to their actual place in the world’s fastest-growing major navy.
Not So Fast!
A controversial Israeli website just doubled down on a dubious claim, leading with an “exclusive” graphic-splashed sea story on 2 October: “Chinese warplanes to join Russian air strikes in Syria.” “DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources report that China sent word to Moscow Friday, Oct. 2, that J-15 fighter bombers would shortly join the Russian air campaign,” the website claimed, without furnishing evidence. “The J-15 warplanes will take off from the Chinese Liaoning-CV-16 aircraft carrier, which reached Syrian shores on Sept. 26 (as DEBKAfile exclusively reported at the time). This will be a landmark event for Beijing: its first military operation in the Middle East as well the carrier’s first taste of action in conditions of real combat.” Perhaps grasping for politically-resonant (Putin-relevant) news, Pravda and other outlets have recirculated some of this misinformed content. Amazingly, however, no serious English-language sources have directly debunked this inaccurate reporting.
Never mind that there are no credible reports of Liaoning entering the region, and no images available of it in Syrian ports. Or that the U.S. Department of Defense and Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) do not judge the Ukrainian-derived carrier or its air wing ready for any such actions. (Liaoning “remains several years from becoming fully operational, and even then will offer relatively limited combat capability”). Or that, for all its growing pushiness and bullying behavior in the “Near Seas” (Yellow, East China, and South China Seas), China remains relatively cautious about the employment of military power overseas. Or that, for both these reasons, Beijing would be taking a tremendous risk in the eyes of the world. Or that China has a history of abstaining from controversial actions when Russia is clearly willing to act and take the heat. Or that, even if China were willing and able to conduct airstrikes with Liaoning, the carrier’s ski-jump configuration and the J-15’s apparently limited engine thrust would severely limit the weapons it could actually carry.
Already, there has been an indirect Chinese denial of sorts. Senior Captain Zhang Junshe—former deputy director of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s strategic think tank and an influential, well-informed member of PLAN policy circles—has been quoted as stating “that reports of the Liaoning heading to the Mediterranean are ‘purely rumors.’”
Here’s what’s going on: following years of American deck aviation operations, particularly in the “unipolar moment” of the last two decades when they could execute overland airstrikes at will from offshore sanctuaries, aircraft carriers have come to symbolize the great power gold standard in strategic control, influence, and reach abroad. Beijing’s military power and geopolitical influence has grown to such an extent that many in China and around the world find it difficult to see how it can develop much further without embracing the American approach. Some overeager observers are thus prematurely imagining new milestones in Chinese power projection via carrier. But to really understand the sea change underway in China’s maritime transformation, we need to “seek truth from facts” and examine what China is actually doing to build deck aviation capability and how it compares to its larger maritime efforts.
The Real Deal
Beijing’s actual carrier news this week is pretty big too. Photos emerged suggesting that China is almost certainly building its first indigenous carrier at Dalian Shipyard. As early as 27 February 2015, keel assembly began in a dry dock previously used for Liaoning’s refitting; by 10 March initial hull construction emerged. On 22 September, new imagery revealed lower hull assembly similar to that the Kuznetsov-class carrier that would become Liaoning underwent at Ukraine’s Nikolayev Shipyard in the mid-1980s.
Dubbed “CV001A” by Internet sources, this ship skeleton is emerging in the right size, shape, and schedule to be China’s Liaoning 2.0. Its dimensions are simply too large to be those of another PLAN ship, even the Type 055 guided-missile cruiser or a new large amphibious ship. As for the latter, there is no evidence of a well deck from which to deploy landing craft, which is typically part of an amphib’s raison d’être. Construction is proceeding too slowly for this to be anything other than a naval vessel; a civilian ship would have been finished and put to sea long ago. “We’re talking eight months from March when they say the initial sections began going up,” stated Capt. Chris Carlson, USN (Ret.). “If it was commercial ship it would be done already.”
Moreover, there is a clear logic to China’s approach. It is one of the few countries with the wherewithal to build its own carrier, but lacks experience. Designing and integrating such a complex system is no small feat. And there are advantages to learning from others’ experience rather than making all the time-consuming, expensive mistakes yourself. It therefore makes sense for shipbuilders who refitted Liaoning in Dalian recently to build a hull similar to that Kuznetsov-class carrier, then fill it with Chinese systems, including improved propulsion, hangars, and crew reduction technology. This allows for the preferred Chinese approach of imitative innovation, namely the “introduce, digest, assimilate, re-innovate” (IDAR) strategy described by Tai Ming Cheung.
This brings us to the true nature of Chinese aircraft carrier development: it is a long-term effort to develop a key element in what Chinese planners envision as an ecosystem of “information systems-based system of systems operations (ISSSO)” akin to U.S. pursuit of net-centric warfare to support more sophisticated, far-reaching operations.
The Big Picture: Major PLAN Growth, Overall…
So where is China’s navy headed, and what role might aircraft carriers play in it? The China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI)’s conference at the Naval War College on 19-20 May 2015, entitled “China’s Naval Shipbuilding: Progress and Challenges,” addressed the former issue. The following draws on my personal summary of the conference findings.
While, in true academic fashion, participants’ exchanged many different viewpoints, the following points were widely agreed upon. The growth of China’s shipbuilding industry is more rapid than any other in modern history, involving a 13-fold increase in Chinese commercial shipbuilding output from 2002-12. Although advancements in recent years are substantial in aggregate, they vary significantly by subfield. China was able to “leap frog” some naval development, engineering, and production steps and achieve tremendous cost and time savings by leveraging work done by the U.S. and other countries in the aforementioned process of “imitative innovation” now employed in CV001A’s development. Two major factors help drive fleet design and quality improvement efforts. PLAN shipbuilding choices are informed by a combination of technological and strategic analysis produced by the PLAN’s two main research organizations. Ship construction is increasingly subject to a detailed set of National and Navy Military Standards.
China’s shipbuilding industry is poised to make the PLAN the second largest and most powerful Navy in the world by 2020, with naval assets dedicated to distant waters (“Far Seas”) missions greater in capability than those of the UK, France, Japan, or India.
Given the likelihood of continued government investment, cost advantage, and pursuit of integrated innovation, if current trends continue China’s shipbuilding industry may achieve a combat fleet that in overall order of battle (i.e., hardware-specific terms) is quantitatively and even perhaps qualitatively on a par with that of the U.S. Navy (USN) by 2030. Whether it can stay on this trajectory, given downside risks to China’s economy, is another question. The prepaid production pipeline should already cover most PLAN development through 2020, but between 2020 and 2030 Chinese policymakers will face significant investment decisions.
…But don’t Get Carrie(re)d Away
As for deck aviation’s role in this emerging Chinese navy, it is necessary to consider how much, and what sort, of a blue water navy China might build. And here, some asymmetries seem poised to remain significant even fifteen years hence.
At 308 vessels, China’s navy already exceeds that of the U.S. numerically at 271. Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia have 202 naval ships among them. And the PLAN could grow far larger, still. But it is in overall numbers that China compares most favorably. It has a much smaller percentage of large, capable ships than the U.S., and is not poised to close this gap anytime soon.
Let’s look at the two of the biggest-ticket blue water naval platforms, aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs). Even the highest-end estimate that I requested from two extremely talented, seasoned conference presenters, assuming maximally favorable conditions for Chinese shipbuilding, credited China with only four carriers by 2030. (In ONI’s estimation, in most forward-looking U.S. government projection publicly available, China will have 1-2 aircraft carriers by 2020; the U.S. currently has 10 operating). As for SSNs, the PLAN is likewise poised to continue to lag the U.S. substantially. ONI forecasts that China will have 6-9 SSNs by 2020, at most less than 1/6 of America’s current 57 SSNs; the aforementioned presenters estimate 12 by 2030. And this says nothing of the ability to operate these complex systems to maximum effect.
Not that maintaining current numbers will be easy for the U.S. Navy. As Philip Pugh explains in his landmark study The Cost of Seapower, while countries tend to spend a constant percentage of their economy on defense over time, the cost of ships and weapons significantly outpaces inflation. But regardless of exact U.S. procurement and maintenance decisions, the PLAN seems poised to remain very far from fully converging on its American counterpart where it matters most in distant seas.
Here’s one major explanation for China’s blue water limitations: power, both for propulsion and operating increasingly-sophisticated onboard sensors and weapon systems, is of vital importance to any military striving for high overall capability and range. Physics is unforgiving: the density of water (829 times greater than air) creates a cubic relationship between power and speed for naval vessels. Going three times faster through water requires twenty seven-times more power. For the PLA, propulsion remains one of its greatest single weaknesses across the board. That’s a China-sized problem for platforms that need to cover ocean-sized distances at significant speeds, while performing at maximum intensity wherever and whenever required.
Submarines suitable for comprehensive blue water operations must be nuclear-powered, energy-dense, and quiet; China has struggled in these and related areas. And it can’t simply draw on its burgeoning civilian nuclear industry because the technologies and skill sets are so different. For example, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGRs) are studied widely in China for their civil land applications, but cannot be taken to sea because they are insufficiently energy-dense to work effectively in cramped naval spaces.
As the USN itself has demonstrated until recently, conventionally-powered aircraft carriers can operate globally—if less advantageously than their nuclear-powered superiors. But Chinese conventional ship propulsion remains weak as well; the majority of the PLAN surface ships are powered by foreign-derived turbines. China has drawn in particular on engines from MTU (Germany), SEMT Pielstick (France), Wärtsilä (Finland), and various Ukrainian manufacturers; in some cases, it has developed its own versions of these engines.
In 2012, China commissioned Liaoning, which employs conventional propulsion. It is widely believed that Beijing is also interested in additional aircraft carriers that use nuclear propulsion. In 2013, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology “formally launched Project 863 to research key technologies for nuclear-powered vessels” and “S&T support project for small-scale nuclear reactor technology and its demonstrated applications.” Key objectives include developing (1) core technologies and safety studies for nuclear-powered ships (2) technical support for small nuclear reactors. One Chinese source asserts, “industry insiders [suggested that this announcement] signified China could be setting out to research a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier….” In this same source, another analyst opined that it made sense strategically for China to “work toward a nuclear-powered one after the technology was mature.”
Such maturation remains elusive, which is one reason China is building its first indigenous carrier as Liaoning 2.0 rather than immediately advancing to a more capable American-style model. Moreover, the performance of carriers’ true reason for existence—the complex, demanding system of systems of aircraft operated from them—hinges on jet engines. Launch and aeroengine capabilities determine an aircraft’s ability to carry fuel and weapons, to maneuver, and to execute its mission reliably. Here too, China remains far behind the gold standard. Lofting significant payloads requires a flat deck and catapult launch, the latter entailing mastery of complex, difficult technology. Russia has never developed a viable U.S.-style steam catapult. Lacking such Russian inspiration to imbibe, some Chinese experts recommend skipping the steam stage and going directly to an electromagnetic model as the U.S. is debuting on the next-generation Ford-class carriers with their Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). But even the U.S. finds this rollout challenging; it seems highly improbable that China could master and implement such technology on its first indigenous carrier.
Both these areas of propulsion are hard to master by any metric. Doing so requires the successful integration and interoperation of some of the world’s most complex technologies and demanding performance parameters. This limits the effectiveness of China’s preferred IDAR strategy, because technologies from disparate sources can be particularly hard to modify and integrate effectively for propulsion applications. Severe safety challenges confront anyone striving to accelerate progress by cutting corners, while demonstrating capabilities far from home risks failure in the eyes of the world—or at least the prying eyes of other militaries.
Propulsion is one of the diminishing areas remaining in which Russia retains major technological advantages over China. China is seeking to reduce this disparity by learning from Russia, both overtly and covertly. Indeed, Russian assistance has already saved China years of effort. The nations’ recent cooperation, deepened by Moscow’s economic and geopolitical vulnerabilities, promises still greater benefits to Beijing.
But even with all of these advantages, improving propulsion capabilities still requires tremendous resources, human capital, infrastructure, and time. Even Russia may prove limited in its willingness to share some of the most sophisticated nuclear propulsion and aeroengine technologies, which the few nations to have mastered them typically guard jealously. While China is clearly determined, capable, and progressing, considering these realities, even 2030 is still too early for it to achieve all its apparent propulsion and blue water goals. Moreover, at the strategic level, Beijing still prioritizes its unrealized objectives in the Near Seas.
Near Seas Remain China’s Priority
Turning back to the Near Seas, China’s military-maritime numbers and capabilities truly become impressive. This is hardly a coincidence: Beijing has sought reunification with Taipei far longer than it has sought to secure faraway sea lanes. Moreover, China’s combination of geography, interests, and capabilities make it far easier to flood its proximate waters with less-sophisticated ships and support their efforts with a vast land-based network of overlapping systems.
When it comes to civil maritime forces numbers, China’s numerical advantage is even greater than for naval platforms. Still growing fast, China’s Coast Guard vessels (205) already outnumber its neighbors’ combined 147. China has 129 500-1,000-ton coast guard vessels to its neighbors’ 84. Here it bears mention that China’s Maritime Militia, to which only Vietnam has a true equivalent in the region, has 17 500-ton steel-hull trawlers in its Tanmen branch alone, a number that will soon increase to 29. Meanwhile, the USCG lacks resources or mission to be a significant Near Seas factor. These numerical advantages—which are poised to increase substantially over the next few years—give China unmatched presence, and considerable influence, in the Near Seas.
Meanwhile, to return to my summation of CMSI conference findings, Chinese defense industrial advances are helping the PLAN, in concert with other PLA elements, to contest sea control within growing range rings extending beyond Beijing’s unresolved island and maritime claims in the Near Seas in a widening arc of the Western Pacific. Four key competitions susceptible to disruptive technology advances will affect future operational outcomes—Hiding vs. Finding, Understanding vs. Confusion, Network Resilience vs. Network Degradation, and Hitting vs. Intercepting, all of which will be affected by advances in China’s technology base, shipbuilding, and design.
By 2020, China is on course to build ships able to deploy greater quantities of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) with greater ranges than those systems used by the U.S. Navy. More broadly, China is on track to have quantitative parity or better in surface-to-air missiles (SAMS) and ASCMs, parity in missile launch cells, and quantitative inferiority only in multi-mission land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs). Retention of USN superiority hinges on next-generation long-range ASCMs (the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile/LRASM and the vertical launch system-compatible Naval Strike Missile/NSM variant)—which are still “paper missiles,” un-fielded on USN surface combatants. Additionally, new U.S. ASCMs may be unable to target effectively under contested A2/AD conditions. Failing to fill this gap would further imperil U.S. ability to generate and maintain sea control in the Western Pacific.
By 2030, the PLAN would still be in the early stages of increasing operational proficiency and its ability to engage in high-intensity operations in distant waters, but could nevertheless—together with other PLA, paramilitary, and irregular forces—develop tremendous ability to actively oppose USN operations in a zone of contestation for sea control in the Near Seas, while extending layers of influence and reach far beyond.
South Sea Training Ground
This brings us to the South China Sea, and the role it might play in Chinese deck aviation development. In the near term, one of its most important uses is likely to be as a training area. And that underscores the importance of China’s recent industrial-scale building of artificial islands on the seven Spratly features it occupies. It is has completed a 3 km runway on Fiery Cross Reef, is constructing one on Subi Reef, and appears to be starting one on Mischief Reef.
One obvious use, among many, for these airstrips: emergency landing. As any naval aviator knows, carrier landings are inherently difficult, carrier decks may be “fouled” by accidents or otherwise unavailable, fuel is precious, and—to drastically de-saltify the lingo, “malfunctions happen.” Short of the most extraordinary operational requirements, therefore, flight training should occur within range of a divert (“bingo”) strip.
I witnessed the “bingo field” imperative firsthand when deployed as a Regional Security Education Program Scholar aboard USS Nimitz (CVN 68), Carrier Strike Group 11, during a Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) transit in 2013. I boarded Nimitz in San Diego. For the next three days we steamed rapidly to the Hawaiian Islands. While it was my responsibility to give lectures to all major departments on the carrier over the course of nine days before departing on a Grumman C-2 Greyhound for Hickam Air Force Base, for the first three days I had to devote primary focus to the aviators. They were a captive audience during this time; once we reached the Hawaiian Islands and their multiple airfields, the aviators and crew supporting them had to shift their attention to flight operations. Bottom line: flight training could take place safely because there was a “bingo field” nearby.
Keeping Chinese Carriers in Context
Even with its current economic headwinds, China is developing rapidly. Its navy and other maritime forces are no exception; China is truly going to sea. But Chinese development remains uneven, and its contours matter. The PLAN already has a similar number of ships to the USN, but it is of a somewhat different composition. Thanks to a lack of overseas bases, it is of a markedly different disposition. China’s burgeoning Coast Guard and obscure Maritime Militia accentuate these geographic and organizational disparities further still. As the serious but slow progress of Chinese aircraft carrier development reflects, all aspects of Chinese seapower are evolving, but are having a far more direct impact on the regional situation than the global order—even as they are influencing both. All the more reason not to “mirror image” and assume that an increasingly capable China is poised to conduct American-style naval air operations over Syria—or even that it will rely on its navy to head the push for advantage in the South China Sea, when it has more paranaval vessels and fishing trawlers capable of coordinating deftly for national purposes than any sea power in history.
Andrew Erickson is an Associate Professor at the U.S. Naval War College.