Even the journey of one thousand begins with the first step.
The attention of experts and the public around the world was attracted by the event of November 23, 2012. Dai Minman, deck pilot aviation China, became the first in stories a Chinese pilot taking off and landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Some observers have called this event a turning point in the Chinese aircraft carrier component program. fleet. Others, on the contrary, stated that the November trials were exaggerated and could not have a significant impact on regional stability. In fact, take-off and landing on an aircraft carrier mark one of the many stages that China went through on its way to becoming a full-fledged maritime power. The future of the carrier component of the Chinese fleet depends, first of all, on what place it will take in Beijing’s military-political strategy.
From Melbourne to Nimitz?
Back in 1928, Mr. Chen Shaoguan, who at that time served as Minister of the Navy, proposed to allocate 20 million yuan for the creation of the first Chinese aircraft carrier. However, this plan was not implemented. Since then, the military and political leadership of China has repeatedly stated the need to build aircraft carriers, but each time these plans remained only on paper.
The first real steps towards the creation of aircraft carriers are associated with Liu Huaqing, who led the Navy of the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA) in 1982 – 1988. It is believed that it is Liu Huaqing who is the "father" of the modern Chinese fleet. Back in 1970, as deputy chief of staff of the Navy, he organized a feasibility study for the construction of an aircraft carrier. In 1985, Australia sold the light aircraft carrier Melbourne to China. Chinese sailors and shipbuilders received a unique opportunity to explore the ship, which breathed new life into the program of creating the Chinese Navy.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China was able to purchase decommissioned Soviet aircraft carrying cruisers of the project (hereinafter) 1143 “Kiev” and “Minsk”, as well as the unfinished aircraft carrying cruiser of the 11436 avenue Varyag. After the conversion to the shipyard in Dalian, the Varyag was renamed the Liaoning in September 2012 and joined the fleet in October, becoming the first Chinese aircraft carrier. In August, 2011 performed its first sea trip to the sea trials of Liaoning.
In parallel, China was implementing a program for the creation of carrier-based aviation. In 2001, the T-10K-3 aircraft, the prototype of the Russian carrier-based fighter Su-33, was acquired from Ukraine, which became the basis of the program to create a Chinese carrier-based fighter. The J-15 fighter made the first flight in August 2009, and the two-seater J-15S fighter - in November 2012.
Information on the current state of the Chinese program to create aircraft carriers is contradictory. According to some estimates, by the middle of the 2020-s, the Chinese fleet plans to receive up to four own-designed aircraft carriers, including two non-nuclear ships X-NUMX, etc., which are similar to Liaonin, and two larger-sized nuclear aircraft carriers, X-NUMX. The implementation of such a program will require significant investments from China, the concentration of a large number of highly qualified personnel, and the solution of a number of complex technical problems.
Among the most important unresolved problems is the construction of a sufficient number of destroyers of air defense and supply vessels, the creation of appropriate infrastructure, and the training of a large number of seamen and pilots of deck aircraft. If China decides to build multipurpose atomic aircraft carriers comparable to the American type "Nimitz", then it will have to create a deck radar detection (DRLO) aircraft, catapults, as well as decide on the choice of a nuclear power plant.
China is actively fighting with South Korea for the title of the leading shipbuilding power in the world. So, in 2011, China accounted for 29% new orders and 39% built ships. Chinese shipbuilding has achieved impressive success: the program for the creation of the modern destroyer of the air defense of the 052C Ave. is being successfully implemented, and despite numerous technical problems, the program for the construction of the third-generation multipurpose nuclear submarines of the 095 Ave.
China's military budget in 2000 – 2011 annually increased by almost 12% (adjusted for inflation). According to estimates by the US Department of Defense, in 2011, total PRC military spending significantly exceeded the officially announced 90 billion dollars and amounted to 120 – 180 billion dollars. Expenditures for the purchase of weapons and military equipment are estimated at about a third of the military budget. It can be assumed that approximately 20 – 30% accounts for the purchase of weapons for the fleet, which is 8 – 18 billion dollars.
The cost of building an aircraft carrier strike group (AUG), including an aircraft carrier similar to Liaonin, a full-fledged air wing and tracking ships, is about 10 billion dollars. Thus, the construction of four AUG over 12 years will require approximately 3,5 billion dollars annually. If the current growth rates of the PRC's military spending continue, the PLA Navy will be able to afford such expenses.
Fight without fighting
The Chinese leadership has repeatedly pointed out that Liaoning will be used exclusively for testing and training. Such statements can be perceived skeptically, but in any case, it will take China at least five years to create a full-fledged AUG headed by Liaoning. This time will be needed to refine and build the required number of deck-based aircraft and helicopters, train sailors and pilots, and ensure sufficient interconnection of AUG ships. But even turning Liaonin into the flagship of a fully combat-ready AUG will not pose a serious military threat to the US Navy, China’s main enemy in the World Ocean.
It should be understood that for the implementation of the Chinese plans to "break through" the First Island Chain, the creation of AUG is redundant. Even in the apocalyptic scenario of J. Kraski, the role of Chinese aircraft carriers is secondary, and the key threat to US naval power comes from anti-access / area denial systems: cruise and ballistic anti-ship missiles, non-nuclear submarines, mines, etc.
At the same time, even two or three AUGs built around ships similar to Liaoning are not enough to confront the United States on the high seas. The qualitative superiority of the American supercarriers, deck aircraft and submarine fleet, the vast experience gained by American sailors and pilots of deck aircraft, will turn the Chinese AUG into easy prey. That is why Admiral R. Willard, the former head of the US Pacific Command, noted that the threat of Chinese aircraft carriers is of a purely "symbolic" character. "Liaoning" and aircraft carriers similar to it will be deprived of DRLO aircraft and significantly limited by the maximum take-off weight of the aircraft. This limits their ability to secure dominance at sea and project power in operations “against the shore” in comparison with American superravianos.
In the event of a military collision in the oceans with virtually any state other than the United States, the aircraft carrier is capable of giving China a significant advantage. This explains the fact that, unlike the United States, many states in the Asia-Pacific region are expressing concern about the Chinese aircraft carrier program. The most likely form of use for Chinese aircraft carriers in conflict with a comparable or weaker adversary will be to provide an air defense system for the ship group, which will allow other ships in it to use their missile weapons effectively to combat surface and coastal targets.
One of the ways to combat the use of Chinese aircraft carriers could be conducting transient military operations of limited scale and with limited political and military objectives. The implementation of the fait accompli policy in local conflicts can lead to China being able to achieve a military victory relatively quickly, achieve its political goals and avoid third-party armed intervention. However, China is likely to use aircraft carriers in order to achieve its political goals without a real military clash.
In the face of a reduction in the US military budget and Washington’s unwillingness to go into a serious conflict with Beijing, aircraft carriers can become an important element of China’s political pressure on Taiwan and those countries with which the PRC has territorial disputes in the East China and South China seas. At some point, China’s power may reach such a level that any attempt to preserve the balance of power will either be doomed to failure in advance or incur costs that will force Beijing to make concessions.
Such a policy can lead to extremely negative consequences for China itself. Thus, the leadership of Vietnam is concerned about the growing naval power and ambitions of the PRC. Given the sad experience of relations with China in the 1970 – 1980-ies, it began to actively purchase naval equipment from Russia, as well as strengthen ties with India and the United States.
Carriers can also be used in situations other than a “zero-sum game,” for example, as a tool of naval diplomacy to increase China’s weight on the world stage, strengthen existing and create new interstate ties in the military-technical and military-political spheres. As the experience of the US Navy shows, aircraft carriers can be effectively used in the provision of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Given the fact that about 65 million Chinese citizens travel and work outside China, aircraft carriers can be an indispensable tool for carrying out operations to evacuate these people from countries experiencing a military or other crisis.
A combat-ready aircraft carrier on patrol in the oceans will serve as a clear demonstration of China’s economic, military and technological power not only for other states, but also for the population of China itself. Improving the image of the CCP among ordinary Chinese and the growth of patriotic feelings are among the arguments in favor of building such ships. It is likely that in the next decade, it is the non-military tasks of peacetime that will become the core of the nascent aircraft carrier component of the Chinese fleet.
- Prokhor Tebin