China's Main Mission: South China Sea, Not Syria

October 5, 2015 Topic: Security Tags: ChinaSyriaDefense

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. (Liaoningremains 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.