February 11, 2012

ISAS Paper on China's "New" (old) Aircraft Carrier Strategy

Artist's conception of what may be called "Shi Lang" (ex Varyag) when its structure and airwing are complete in 2-3 years.

The National University of Singapore's (NUS's) Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) generates a wealth of papers here on India and its neighbours - see this string http://www.isas.nus.edu.sg/ . There's nothing as accessible in Australia.

For example ISAS Insights paper No. 133, 5 September 2011 (reference here ) China and Its Aircraft Carrier: The Dragon’s Deft Dealings with a Nervous Neptune by Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is interesting reading. Here are some portions:

"Abstract - The latest sea-launch of the Aircraft Carrier by China may be a more cosmetic exercise than substantive. Of more consequence is perhaps the acquisition of a deadly maritime armoury... The answer to avoid it may lie in a regional Big-Tent Naval conference like those held in the past among western maritime powers."

"...[a Chinese] Aircraft Carrier should not come as a surprise to anyone. The surprise, if any, should be that it has taken that long for the Chinese to do so. That is because in most decisions, time is not necessarily of the essence to them. It is always tempered with pragmatism, perceptions, prestige, patience and posturing. When all these constellations of forces combine, the Chinese take the required policy step. It is always intensely measured. This is one element of Marxist thinking that is also ingrained in China’s cultural behaviour pattern.

[In]...mid to late 1980s...A new concept then evolved, which involved three missions...Protection of Chinese vessels from Somali pirates further west in the Indian Ocean would be an additional goal. It is noteworthy that 90 per cent of China’s trade by volume is transported by sea. Two-thirds of its energy needs will be met from overseas by 2015. There is much therefore that needs to be protected.

...Unsurprisingly, the PLAN is the fastest growing force in the Chinese military. Since 2000, China has procured around 20 major surface vessels as frigates and destroyers, and at least 31 new submarines.

There is chatter in strategic circles around the world that China plans to build around six aircraft carriers. [This first Chinese carrier (ex Varyag was just a Soviet/Russian/Ukrainian hull] ...all the add-on equipment will be Chinese.... Eventually the Chinese would build their own in entirety. In line with the policy of calibrations, the [carrier] trial was launched to coincide with the visit of the United States (US) Vice President Joseph Biden, just as some months earlier [the Chinese (bolded by Petefor emphasis)] stealth-fighter was tested when the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was in Beijing.

More significant than carriers, the Chinese have focused on deadly weapons that would reduce the effectiveness of these platforms. One is the DongFeng (East Wind) 21 D [see ‘Report: China Develops Special ‘Kill Weapons’ to Destroy US Aircraft Carrier’, US Naval Institute (31 March 2009), http://wwwusni.org/news-and-features/chinese-kill-weapon . Accessed on 5 September 2011.] 
 [Full designation can be
DF-21D (CSS-5 Mod-4)], a precise anti-ship killer-missile that supposedly can destroy a US Super-carrier in one strike. It is believed to employ a complex guidance system, a low radar signature and an unpredictable flight path rendered so by its manoeverability. Also, it has the capacity to evade tracking system, with the possibility of travelling at a speed of mach-10, which would allow it to reach a maximum range of 2,000 km in 12 minutes.

The other is the stealth-fighter mentioned earlier, the J 20, which many American military strategists see as a game-changer....It is seen as rendering all air defence systems in the region as obsolete, with no radar arrays having the capability of picking it up. [For details of its capabilities, see Robert Johnson, ‘China Claims Air Superiority with Its New J-20 Stealth Fighter’, Business Insider (10 May 2011).]
 It can therefore remain undetected throughout its flight, with potentially devastating consequences for targets, including US and other Aircraft Carriers.

Why Carrier?
But why acquire Aircraft Carriers...these are incredibly costly...vulnerable as targets that can be more easily acquired and destroyed? Also, for that very reason each Carrier needs a protective [flotilla of warships]. Enter prestige as a factor in the calculations, a somewhat Asian value, but not necessarily devoid of military significance. [actually the US, UK and France also put significant store on carrier prestige] This became all the more apparent when in July this year a senior Chinese researcher at the Academy of Military Sciences, General Luo Yuan, said: ‘If we consider our neighbour India will have three Aircraft Carriers by 2014, as also Japan, I think the number for China should not be less than three, so we can defend our rights and our maritime interests effectively’. [‘China needs at least three aircraft carriers’, Spacewars (30 July 2011) article here Accessed on 11 September 2011]. But six, the reportedly planned number, is even better than three.
This also goes to show the main purpose of Chinese Aircraft Carriers is not necessarily to tilt the naval balance in their favour. China is doing this through other means, by developing other capabilities, deploying effective weapon systems and procuring more appropriate sea-vessels. The combination however, is in effect designed to dampen the combative spirit of regional competitors like Vietnam, Australia and even India, the great Asian rival. With the US and its latest Air Sea Battle Concept (ASBC), the Chinese see themselves as having a lot to deal in their hands vis-à-vis their major superpower protagonist. [Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury ,’Power-play of Peers in the Pacific: A ‘Chimerican’ Chess Game?’, ISAS Insight No.124, 10 June 2011.]
"...Aaron L. Friedburg, a Professor of Princeton University, has written: ‘Those (Chinese) preparations do not mean that China wants war with the United States. To the contrary, they seem intended mostly to overawe its neighbours while dissuading Washington from coming to their aid if there is ever a clash’.[‘China’s Challenge at Sea’, International Herald Tribune (5 September 2011).]


That leaves out India, and the complex relationship between the Indian elephant and the Chinese dragon. India has let its ‘blue water’ aspirations be widely known. It has presence in the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and even in the South China seas. In six years, India hopes to have three Carriers with battle groups, deployed both near and far. The capabilities will be augmented by MIG-29 K aircraft with a range of 2,300 km, and such sophisticated missiles as the ‘BrahMo[s]’ with its 300 km range and ‘Dhanush’ [a navalised Prithvi development], which can be fired both on and under-water with 350 km range. The danger is that Sino-Indian paths at sea may cross. Indeed recently there was the case of the Indian naval ship [INS Airavat] , cruising close to Vietnam, which was warned off the supposedly ‘Chinese waters’ by China’s navy.

Fortunately this did not lead to any further incident, but such possibilities cannot be ruled out in the future. What is obviously required is a ‘Big Tent’ regional naval conference, as between western powers in the past, agreeing on some rules of naval conduct and ‘confidence building measures’. A failure in understandings in this regard could result in accidents, with consequences far more horrendous now, than then."
End - see whole paper.