ByGreg Waldron, Asian Skies
Two big news items today, one about China’s new aircraft carrier, the other about India’s.
China, more or less, confirmed its carrier program. Although the former USSR carrier Varyag is clearly visible inDalian – apparently a great view is available from the bedroom section of Ikea – the country has never officially acknowledged the ship, though it has been crawling with workers for years. What’s more, the ship has a new phased array radar and bristles with other antennas.
The Chinese language Hong Kong Commercial Daily quotes a senior Chinese officer, assistant chief of the general staff Qi Jianguo, confirming (finally) the program’s existence. He added that the ship is not ready – as China’s internet community already knows.
Qi noted that the carrier is not for offensive purposes, but serves a defensive role given the pressures China faces on its various ocean frontiers in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. Apparently the other countries that share these seas need not feel pressured by China’s rhetoric (‘we own the South China Sea’) and major military build up. It is widely reported, incidentally, that the new carrier will bear the name Shi Lang, a Chinese admiral who conquered Taiwan in the 17th century.
Meanwhile India Today reports that the INS Vikramaditya will sail to India early next year. This is consistent with recent comments to Flightglobal by the Indian Navy, which has just received five new RSK-MiG 29 K/KUBs, that the new ship will be in service in 18 months. It has been a long, long road. The carrier programme has been plagued by spats over costs and delayed work.
Both countries have long term plans beyond the Vikramaditya and Shi Lang. India plans two indigenous carriers equipped with catapults – the Vikramaditya will launch aircraft via ski jump. The catapults on the new two ships, which are expected to be in service by 2020, will enable heavier takeoff weights, as well as the deployment of airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft. The Indian navy has approached Northrop Grumman for more information about the E-2D Hawkeye.
China’s plans are less clear. The Shi Lang is widely expected to be used mainly as a training carrier. China is a newcomer to naval aviation and faces a long learning curve in deploying this capability. How many carriers she plans and their configuration is anybody’s guess.
Interesting reads on both above-mentioned carriers can be found on Jeffhead’s Worldwide Aircraft Carriers site http://www.jeffhead.com/worldwideaircraftcarriers/
Qi’s reassurances to one side, there can be little doubt that when the Shi Lang finally takes to the high seas, she will be a game changer in South East Asia. Yes, carrier flight operations are difficult and it will take some time for China’s PLAN to master the ins and outs, but there is no doubt in my formerly military mind that they will master those lessons and that the ship will be give China’s war planners a level of power projection capability that it has never had before.
This capability, given China’s historical willingness to use it’s military power in defense of what it perceives as its national interests, is undoubtedly raising serious concerns in Asian capitals from Tokyo to New Delhi.
Personally, I think the Shi Lang and her follow-on sisters are going to be damn effective. Much more effective at what they are being designed for than most naval planners are willing to believe now. Much more effective and combat capable than the Russian Navy’s Admiral Kutnezsov — and I think the Shi Lang herself, once she steams out of port for the first time, is going to be operational much faster than people believe possible.
Will the PLAN make some mistakes learning the lessons? Sure! They have probably made more than a few already — which is probably at least part of the reason it’s taking them so long to get this lady out to sea.
But they will get that lady out to sea, and they will master carrier flight operations (again, probably a lot faster than anyone here is willing to bet), and they will build more.
As far as her size and lack of steam catapults are concerned, I just shake my head and sigh. People look at her and look at our big brawny Nimitz and Ford class carriers and smirk. That, in my opinion is foolish.
She was never designed to go air-wing to air-wing against American supercarriers so any comparisons along that line are irrelevant. Chinese anti-carrier doctrine revolves around cruise missiles (both sub and surface launched) and their new anti-carrier IRBMs.
It is my belief that the Shi Lang is the perfect size for her envisioned mission, which will be power projection in the Southeast Asian, Indian Ocean and African areas, in support of Chinese geopolitical objectives involving developing nations, and as a highly visible symbol of China’s might and reach during port visits to friendly and non-aligned nations.
To give just one example, how does anyone think Indonesia or Malaysiais going to react, if during of their periodic orgies of ethnic-Chinese bashing, the Shi Lang carrying 30 to 50 SU-33s along with her battlegroup screen were to show up offshore?
Then there is the PLAN itself and the casual contempt in which too many people seem to hold them. If you have any doubts about how serious they are, take a good look at THE RISING SEA DRAGON page,
and realize thatChinais building a modern blue water force that is very capable, professional and has the specific mission of driving theUSout of the Western Pacific andIndianOceans.
I am also sure that China is going to go through its own teething pains (which will probably involve a moderate to high amount of blood, guts and feathers) but China (being China) will simply shrug that off as the price of doing business.
What everyone seems to be ignoring is that the Chinese do not need to invent anything. All they are doing is adapting and improving what others, including us, have already done. They are quite good at that.
And, because they do not kowtow to public opinion like we do, they will get through the messy stages a lot faster.
People might want to pay attention to the problems the PLAN had to deal with to master submarine operations — which are every bit as complex, demanding and dangerous as carrier operations — and at which they have also become quite proficient.
Proficient enough to sneak a boat well into missile range of the USS Kitty Hawk undetected — and then flip a bird at the USN by surfacing within easy cruise missile range.
It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. The officers and men of the PLAN are serious professional people who are working with world class hardware. If the USN and our allies do not get that dialed in now, we are going to get our balls kicked up next to our ears if it ever seriously drops in the pot.