Tuesday, September 25, 2012

On China And Aircraft Carriers

This was a real doozy. You can read the article and my post here if you wish. The story at hand is about the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (yes, that's what it's called) launching their first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, a refurbished Soviet-era Kiev-class carrier that had been sitting abandoned in a Ukranian shipyard since the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Okay, let's do a little fact-checking here. This vessel (Liaoning) and the carriers the Chinese gov't plans on building for the People's Liberation Army Navy (yes, that's what it's called - seriously) pose little threat to the national sovereignty of the US or any of its allies in the Pacific Rim. But let's break down some more facts here.

1.) How many are they building after Liaoning? Most reports I've come across say that the PLA Navy will launch a second conventionally-powered carrier in 2014, and a nuclear-powered carrier in 2020. That gives them three decks. For the record, the US Navy operates ten carriers (CVN-78, USS Gerald R. Ford will launch in 2015, replacing CVN-65, USS Enterprise) three times the size of Liaoning. The best guess is that Liaoning's future sisters will be of roughly the same size and utility.

2.) What will they be used for? While the minor territorial disputes the Chinese are involved in, such as the Senkaku and Spratly Islands are more about resource development than national pride (both island chains are in close proximity to large undersea oil deposits) are first on the agenda, those could likely be solved either through diplomacy or by the Chinese making a financial offer that their owners would be foolish to refuse.

3.) Then what? Well, this is where things get interesting. The real enemy here, from the Chinese perspective, is India. The Indian navy has its own Soviet-vintage carrier (INS Vikramaditya, the former Admrial Gorshkov), as well as an old British Centaur-class light carrier (INS Viraat), and is developing the Vikrant-class carrier to replace INS Viraat and supplement INS Vikramaditya, with a larger version of Vikrant (INS Vishal) to follow. India and China have been fighting on-and-off for nearly 60 years now, over territorial disputes in the Himalayas as well as Tibet.

And then there's Russia. The Chinese and Russians have never been all that friendly either, going back to Soviet times. Perhaps as a response to China's growing naval strength, the Russian gov't announced earlier this year that they would embark on a plan to build six new carriers. The only problem? The announcement stated that the last carrier wouldn't enter service until the middle of the century.

4.) Is this a threat to the US? In terms of an absolute existential threat, absolutely not. A single USN carrier group could easily engage and defeat the entire PLA Navy well away from American shores. However, Chinese intervention in terms of smaller, limited engagements with other nations could cause a substantial destabilization of the global economy. That would be trouble for the US, but it would also be trouble for the Chinese as well, since you can't sell stuff to dead people.

In summary, the launching of the Liaoning does little in and of itself, since the PLA Navy has already said that it would be little more than a trainer. However, it is fueling an arms race in Asia that we will have to keep an eye on. But believe it or not, there is a positive to this new arms race - the growing Indian and Chinese navies could theoretically take some of the burden off of the US and NATO navies in peacekeeping efforts, such as off the Horn of Africa dealing with Somali pirates. And it would be about damn time that they did.

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