The Chinese military establishment is rather opaque at times, but in other ways, they’re quite forthcoming about what they have planned.
Many have scoffed at China buying, refurbishing and deploying the ex-Varyag carrier as the Liaoning. Claiming it is in no way a match for US Nimitz class carriers, with no catapults and a tiny air wing, they sneer at the thought that China can become a naval aviation power. What’s one small carrier to a fleet of 11 supercarriers?
The problem is, the Chinese have never intended to only operate one carrier. The Liaoning is clearly a training carrier, an introduction to naval aviation, much as the US Navy’s first carrier, CV-1 Langley, was not a combat ship, but a laboratory to explore the challenges of naval aviation.
The US Navy uses its carrier fleet for forward presence and as the primary method of power projection from the sea. They take the fight to the the shores of an enemy.
The Chinese Navy (actually, the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN) in the near to mid term sees its role as Anti-Access/Area Denial or A2AD. That is, their role is to prevent the US Navy from being able to perform its power projection role. They see the waters of the far western Pacific as their own, and other nations can only operate their at their sufferance.
Most of the Chinese A2AD strategy has been based on a combination of submarines and land based air and missile power, backed by large numbers of relatively small missile armed surface combatants.
But historically, if you want to fight a carrier based navy, you need a carrier based navy. And so the Chinese some time ago announced their intentions to build up a fleet of (at least) four carriers. The first, Liaoning, we’ve seen. And the word is that the second of this fleet will be a new-build repeat, though probably with some changes based on lessons learned. That leaves carriers 3 and 4.
It has long been speculated that these carriers would be more in line with what we think of as a supercarrier. Nuclear powered, with catapults capable of operating more than just lightly loaded fighters, and with a large, diverse air wing with strike fighters, anti-submarine helicopters, and critically, a viable Airborne Early Warning aircraft.
After a good deal of speculation, now comes word from the China-Defense blog that a fairly definitive model of the next generation Chinese carrier has been made public.
If you think that looks not a bit like a Nimitz (or even a touch of Ford) carrier, you’re not alone.
Skeptics of Chinese naval aviation like to say that the US Navy took over 70 years to learn to operate carriers. But that’s not true. Looking at the history of carrier aviation, our Navy learned to operate carriers as many as four different times, each in different ways.
- The early days of Langley, Lexington, Saratoga
- The late prewar Ranger, Yorktown, Enterprise, Hornet, Wasp and early one and two ship carrier groups
- The Essex/Independence classes and the large Fast Carrier Task Force of late World War II
- The great transition to the jet age, with the Forrestal supercarriers, the angled deck, steam catapults, and the optical landing system
For our purposes, the last is of the greatest interest. In a period of little more than a decade, carrier aviation changed almost completely. The US Navy suffered appalling accident rates during that time, but the lessons were learned, and for the most part are still valid today.
And having written down the lessons, they are available to study for any who wish to learn.
And like most engineering challenges, once the problem has been solved the first time, every iteration after that is much simpler.
China won’t suddenly become the dominant force upon the ocean blue. But to ignore that fact that China is rapidly becoming a very near peer at sea in the western Pacific, especially as they become more and more aggressive and expansionistic, is to court disaster in the very near future.