Not so impressive and their navy lacks experience, but Beijing’s dreams & intentions cause worry
China’s first aircraft carrier returned to its home base of Dalian yesterday after a debut voyage of five days. The Chinese media describes the jubilation of a crowd at the dockside that, after witnessing the giant vessel emerge from a thick fog three km away, set off firecrackers to welcome home the most keenly watched warship in the resurgent People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLA(N).
This is the vessel formerly known as Varyag, a massive, 58,500-tonne, 300-ft, Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier being built in Ukraine when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Strapped for funds, Ukraine put the semi-complete vessel up for auction in 1998. A Chinese company, Chong Lot Travel Agency, bought it for $20 million, claiming they wanted it for a floating casino in Macau. Instead, it docked at Dalian, was painted PLA(N) grey, and refurbished over a decade into a functional aircraft carrier.
However, experts are sceptical about its combat capabilities. Ruslan Pukhov of the Moscow Strategy and Technologies Analysis Centre says the vessel was obsolete before it was purchased. China’s defence ministry spokesman, Geng Yansheng, says the ex-Varyag will be used for “scientific research, experiment and training”. Nor has the PLA(N) displayed confidence by planning the sea trials so close by the Dalian dockyard. While an “exclusion zone” that China declared in the Yellow Sea and Liaoning Bay led to breathless speculation that the PLA(N) might include simulated aircraft landings during the sea trials, no such trials were conducted.
Experience remains the PLA(N)’s bottleneck. Despite possessing an aircraft carrier and a fighter capable of operating from it (the Shenyang J-15 ‘Flying Shark’, evidently reverse-engineered from Russia’s Sukhoi-33 fighter), the PLA(N) remains to develop the specialised skills needed for aircraft carrier operations. The flight deck of a carrier that is launching aircraft or recovering these is an exceptionally busy place, with scores of sailors simultaneously performing crucial and linked tasks. Even as fighters are taking off and landing, others are being moved around on the deck, between the hangars and the deck, and being refuelled or replenished with ammunition. Fine judgement is needed to gauge when the sea is too rough for flying operations. There is no place for error; the US Navy lost about 12,000 aircraft and 8,500 airmen between 1949 (when it started deploying jets in sizeable numbers on aircraft carriers) and 1988 (when accident rates came down to US Air Force levels). While the PLA(N) will enjoy a steeper learning curve, naval aviation experts estimate it will take at least five to 10 years to achieve proficiency in carrier combat operations.
In this key area, the Indian Navy scores over the PLA(N), having operated aircraft carriers for half a century (INS Vikrant, India’s first carrier, was commissioned in March 1961). India currently has one functional carrier, INS Viraat, bought from Britain’s Royal Navy in 1987. A second, the 44,000-tonne INS Vikramaditya (the former Admiral Gorshkov) will arrive from Russia by 2012-13. Meanwhile, Cochin Shipyard is constructing a 40,000-tonne vessel, still unnamed, referred to as the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC). This is likely to be followed by more vessels, in the 60,000-tonne category.
But there is concern within the US Navy, which has underwritten peace in the Asia-Pacific since World War II. It is a declining force, with half the battleships it had during the Cold War. Especially worrying are its declining aircraft carrier numbers, down from 15 carrier battle groups (this includes a flotilla of smaller warships that screen an aircraft carrier from enemy submarines, aircraft, missiles and mines) at the end of the 1980s to 11 today. “We would welcome any kind of explanation that China would like to give for needing this kind of equipment,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a press conference last week.
The answer has come from the Chinese media and bloggers, who are calling for the new vessel to be named Shi Lang, after a Qing dynasty admiral who conquered Taiwan in 1681. Taiwan is taking China seriously: The Taipei Aerospace and Defense Technology Exhibition that opened last Thursday featured the Hsiung Feng III, a Taiwanese supersonic missile with a range of 130 km. The missile was displayed in front of a picture of a burning carrier that bears a striking resemblance to the Varyag.
The PLA is doing little to calm fears. In last Friday’s PLA Daily, Guo Jiuanyue wrote, “If we do not have the courage or will to use it to solve territorial disputes, why would we have built it? Are we spending countless money and occupying quite a part of the national budget to build it only for admiring it or scaring the countries that provoke China? If it is necessary, China will use the aircraft carrier and other kinds of battleships to solve disputes. That is natural and logical.”