Is China’s Aircraft Carrier a Threat to U.S. Interests?

  • China’s Aircraft Carrier
    Aug 11, 2011

    On August 10, 2011, China’s first aircraft carrier set sail from Dalian Port on its maiden voyage. Announcing the sailing, China’s Defense Ministry stated that the inaugural sea trial would be brief; some Hong Kong media have estimated the trial would last 15 days. The Liaoning Provincial Maritime Safety Administration issued a notice restricting vessels from traveling through an area between the northern Yellow Sea and Liaodong Bay from August 10 to 14. The unusually public announcement of the carrier’s sea trial stands in contrast to the secretive test flight of China’s first stealth fighter jet last January and its test of an antisatellite weapon in January 2007, and was welcomed by the Pentagon as a sign of greater transparency by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

    The carrier, formerly called the Varyag, is a Soviet-era platform that China purchased from Ukraine without the engines, rudder, and much of the operating systems. The vessel was transported to Dalian in 2002 and began refitting. Despite widespread speculation and intelligence about the budding Chinese aircraft carrier program, China kept mum about developments until June 2011, when the chief of the General Staff of the PLA, Chen Bingde, confirmed China’s first carrier was under construction in an interview with the Hong Kong Commercial Daily. Chinese media have proposed that the ship be dubbed the Shi Lang, after a Qing dynasty admiral who conquered the Kingdom of Tungning (i.e., Taiwan) in 1681. There have as yet been no official statements from either the government or the military regarding the carrier’s name.

    Q1: Why is China deploying an aircraft carrier?

    A1: The acquisition of an aircraft carrier is driven in part by China’s desire for international prestige. The United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, Spain, Italy, India, Brazil, and Thailand operate a total of 21 active-service aircraft carriers (the United States alone operates 11). An aircraft carrier is widely viewed by Chinese as a symbol of national power and prestige. PLA officers often remind foreigners that China is the only permanent member of the UN Security Council without a carrier.

    At the same time, however, the procurement of the carrier is a consequence of an improved continental threat environment that has imposed constraints on China’s ability to develop sea power. It also represents expanded Chinese national interests created by deeper integration into the global economy. In the past decade, China’s trade dependence doubled from 40 percent in 2000 to 73 percent during the 2006–2008 period, with more than 80 percent of that trade carried by ship. Moreover, acquisition of a carrier will better enable the PLA to implement Hu Jintao’s 2004 “New Historic Missions” and respond to demands to undertake a range of nontraditional security operations.

    Q2: What are the aircraft carrier’s capabilities?

    A2: The ex-Varyag is an Admiral Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier, measuring roughly 304.5 meters long and 37 meters wide. The vessel has a displacement of 58,500 metric tons and can travel at speeds of 32 knots (37 miles per hour). Engines, generators and defense systems, including the Type 1030 CIWS (close-in weapon system) and the FL-3000N missile system, were added to the vessel in Dalian. As designed, it could be armed with 8 AK-630 AA (antiaircraft) guns, 8 CADS-N-1 Kashtan CIWS, 12 P-700 Granit SSM (surface-to-surface missiles), 18 8-cell 3K95 Kinzhal SAM VLS (surface-to-air missiles, vertical-launch system), and the RBU-12000 UDAV-1 ASW (antisubmarine warfare) rocket launcher. Also as designed, the carrier could carry 26 fixed-wing aircraft (likely the Shenyang J-15) and 24 helicopters.

    The carrier is fitted with a “ski jump” ramp rather than the catapult used by U.S. carriers. The carrier’s smaller size and ramp greatly reduces the number of aircraft it can carry and how many it can operate at any one time. Additionally, in order to take off, the fighters will carry lighter payloads and less fuel, greatly limiting their firepower and range of operations. Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng stated that the ex-Varyag will be used for “scientific research, experiment and training.” Indeed, the carrier may not be well-suited to combat, but it will give China the opportunity to train sailors and pilots in aircraft carrier operations. Mastering the challenges of operating, defending, and maintaining a carrier, as well as a possible accompanying carrier task force, will take at least a decade.

    Q3: How many carriers is China building, and for what missions might they be used?

    A3: China is reportedly already building at least one if not two indigenous aircraft carriers, which are likely to be deployed over the next 15 years. At a July 11 press briefing, General Chen Bingde stated that no official decision had been made on how many carriers will be built. Experts have suggested that China would need at least three carriers for effective power projection.

    The missions for which China might use aircraft carriers remain unclear. Rather than seek to replicate U.S. naval strategy and operations, the PLAN is more likely to develop a limited power-projection capability that enhances China’s ability to defend its regional interests; to protect expanding overseas interests; to perform nontraditional security missions such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counterpiracy, noncombatant evacuation, antiterrorism peacekeeping operations, crisis response, and military diplomacy; and to demonstrate international responsibility.

    Q4: Do China’s aircraft carrier ambitions pose a threat to the United States and its friends and allies?

    A4: Even after the ex-Varyag is fully operational, it is widely acknowledged that a lone, obsolete aircraft carrier has limited use militarily. The main functions in the near term will be to enhance China’s national prestige, provide personnel training, and conduct military diplomacy. The political impact of the carrier’s deployment will be potentially far greater, however. China’s neighbors, many of which are increasingly anxious about China’s military modernization and willingness to flex its muscles in disputed waters, are worried that a carrier will provide China with additional means to project power from its coastline. It will likely reinforce ongoing efforts by many regional countries to shore up their own capabilities.

    In the South China Sea, where China competes with others over territorial claims, countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines are already ramping up their sea defense capabilities through greater military cooperation with the United States and procurement of new platforms to bolster their ability to defend their claims.

    Bonnie Glaser is a senior fellow with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Brittany Billingsley is a research associate with the CSIS Freeman Chair.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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