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.