China’s Aircraft Carrier Program: Implications for Taiwan and the Region

The aircraft carrier is a potent symbol of military power. But its utility is constrained by several factors
Photo: PLA Navy
Michal Thim
By

Ever since the surprising attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the aircraft carrier has become a symbol of naval power and an ultimate power projection tool. Nothing has epitomized the U.S. global presence as much as the carrier strike group (CSG). Now China may have similar aspirations. What are the implications for the region, and for Taiwan?

For example, CSG 5, whose basing in Japan would make it the first responder in a Taiwan-related crisis, consists of CVN-76 Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier with up to 90 aircraft and escort of two Ticonderoga-class missile cruisers (CG) and seven Arleigh Burke-class missile destroyers. That alone is a decent-sized navy and air force in one. Moreover, in the case of more serious developments, CSG 5 would be supported by other vessels of the US 7th fleet. The value of an aircraft carrier does not lie only in its combat utility but also has a role in U.S. foreign policy posturing. Thus, it is no coincidence that two CSGs were sent toward the Taiwan Strait in March 1996 to demonstrate Washington’s commitment to see no military intimidation of Taiwan.

Back in March 1996, People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and Air Force (PLAAF) had problem to even locate the two CSGs, let alone engage them (p. 25). In the next two decades, Beijing spent considerable energy developing the means to address the capability gap along with addressing the general sorry state of the PLA. Part of Beijing’s efforts has been creation of set of countermeasures such as anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD). Well-known elements of A2/AD are anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM), hypersonic anti-ship missiles, a modernized fleet of submarines, and Houbei-class stealth missile boats. However, none of those would make a real difference without improvements in the areas of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. While A2/AD infrastructure has broader use for China’s actions, the ability to significantly degrade CSG operations within A2/AD cover has certainly been at the forefront of Chinese intentions. These developments sparked intense debate on the U.S. side on how to maintain strong presence in Western Pacific in the face of ever more competent PLA. Irrespective of the incomplete modernization of the PLA, Beijing has been successful in shaking up the image of the aircraft carrier as an all-purpose power projector.

However, it would be wrong to assume that after meticulous efforts to put U.S. aircraft carriers at risk, Beijing would reject acquiring carriers of its own. In 2011, China entered the “carrier club” after the retrofitted ex-soviet CV-16 Liaoning began sea trials. Granted, the Liaoning offers only rudimentary capability. For ships of its displacement, i.e. about 60,000 tons, it offers a very modest air complement of up to 36 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Its U.S. counterpart, the Nimitz-class carrier, has a displacement of 100,000 tons but its carrier air wing is nearly twice the size. The size of a carrier air wing is of course important. At any given time, part of an aircraft carrier wing is conducting air defense patrols to provide air cover for the whole strike group, which in turn decreases ability to conduct any significant number of offensive sorties. The absence of catapults on the Liaoning, relying instead on a ski jump, also limits the range and battle ordnance of its jet fighters. If China is serious about having an all-purpose aircraft carrier, the Liaoning does not quite cut it. After all, it is more reasonable to look at the Liaoning as a training platform that will produce the capabilities required for future aircraft carrier missions.

Beijing has therefore been seeking to acquire another carrier (or two, according to Taiwan’s defense ministry). It is to be completely domestically produced, although experts point out that work on a hull at Dalian shipyards suggests a similarity with the Liaoning and have thus referred to it as the Liaoning 2.0.

When Beijing succeeds in producing an aircraft carrier of its own, it will not only underscore two decades of PLAN rise but also underscore the maturity of the Chinese shipbuilding industry. There is a certainly element of prestige included in having and being able to deploy an aircraft carrier. However, it would be ill advised for Beijing to acquire expensive weapon platforms just for the sake of prestige. Ultimately, the question is not whether China is capable of building indigenous aircraft carriers. Rather, the question is what exactly does it need them for.

To answer that question, we must stop thinking about aircraft carrier as the centerpiece of a strike group ready to project power at a long distance. Instead, we should think about aircraft carrier as a platform that provides air defense for other ships in the fleet. Unless future Chinese aircraft carriers will be less like the Liaoning and more akin to the Nimitz-class in terms of size and operational flexibility, fleet air defense is what we should expect as the primary mission. Even relatively small carrier wing adds an element of active organic defense in addition to fleets’ air defense systems. This is not to say that the Liaoning and her successors won’t be able to project power in a way that U.S. aircraft carriers have demonstrated over the course of their service. For example, barring substantial modernization of the Philippines air force, the Liaoning’s complement of 24 J-16 jets would be enough to take on the tiny Philippines air force and engage in ground strikes before the U.S. could intervene. In other words, future Chinese aircraft carriers will primarily conduct defensive actions unless they find a permissive environment to go on the offensive.

Considering China’s primary concerns to achieve its most immediate goals along its maritime borders, Taiwan appears to be one of the primary targets of China’s carrier program. However, a brief examination of possible deployments in the case of forceful action against Taiwan reveals that adding aircraft carriers to the mix is not exactly a risk-free endeavor.

For one, it is highly unlikely that China would send its aircraft carrier(s) directly into the Taiwan Strait on combat mission. At no point in the Strait it would be out of range of the Hsiung Feng II and III anti-ship missiles deployed on Taiwan, on offshore islands under its control (Kinmen and Penghu), and on sea-denial vessels such as the Tuo Jiang-class missile corvette. In addition to capable missiles, Taiwan also maintains an extensive network of maritime sensors providing situational awareness (for more on this, see the excellent Project 2049’s report by Ian Easton and Randall Schriver). Granted, in the case of hostilities between Taiwan and China, the PLA would put considerable efforts into kinetic attacks as well as electronic warfare to take out Taiwan’s sensors and missile platforms. However, the risk for a carrier is simply too high in the Strait. Moreover, the entirety of the Strait is well within reach of the PLA’s land-based forces, be it air bases or the Second Artillery Corps. Thus, deploying a carrier there would make little sense. It is worth mentioning that despite the mistaken belief, not even during 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis did U.S. aircraft carriers enter the Taiwan Strait.

Deployment north to northeast to Taiwan would be a much more sensible choice. A Chinese aircraft carrier positioned in that area would provide air cover for other PLAN ships and its anti-submarine helicopters would make life for any hostile submarines there more difficult. The problematic part of this option is that the area of deployment would be near to disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands and the Japanese navy would therefore likely bolster its presence in the region even if Japan itself were not part of the conflict. However, that would change completely were Japan to join a U.S. intervention. Chinese carrier strike group would suddenly be squeezed between Taiwan’s sea-denial missiles and Japan-U.S. naval and air forces. In such a scenario, the benefits that a Chinese aircraft carrier would provide for the rest of PLA forces would be easily cancelled.

A deployment farther to the east of Taiwan’s east coast would make sense if the primary mission was to extend Chinese air cover and protect PLAN ships attacking Taiwan’s military and air bases with cruise missiles. However, this is also the area where a Chinese CSG would be most isolated and would rely solely on its own firepower. It would also have to contend with whatever elements of the Taiwan Navy survived a first strike before it could turn its attention to land-based targets. As with a deployment closer to Japan-held islands, in the waters east off Taiwan a Chinese carrier could easily become involved in an uneven encounter with a U.S. CSG and U.S. forces based on Guam without the support of land-based forces. Besides a U.S. CSG, U.S. Navy submarines, which are much more familiar with the undersea environment than the Chinese, would also pose a serious headache for the PLAN.

A deployment to the southwest off Taiwan’s principal port of Kaohsiung is another option. It would not expose a Chinese CSG to third-party intervention as much as the two areas previously discussed, except for a potential U.S. deployment in the Philippines’ Subic Bay. Moreover, it would contribute to a blockade of Kaohsiung and air cover for other ships participating in the effort. On the downside, should Taiwan expand its submarine fleet, the deeper waters outside of Kaohsiung port would become natural area for those subs. Given that anti-submarine warfare remains an Achilles’ Heel for the PLAN, this is not a threat that China would tae lightly.

The South China Sea therefore seems to be a more logical environment for future deployment than Taiwan. Most of the claimants, perhaps with the exception of Vietnam, do not have naval or air capabilities that are substantial enough to pose serious enough a treat to the PLAN, although that could change in the future given the Philippines’ and Indonesia’s naval modernization. Taiwan’s own presence on Taiping Island poses no risk to China. Moreover, the recent base-building spree by China in the region provides a network of hard points that could support carrier operations and offer emergency air strips for carrier’s air wing, as Andrew Erickson, a PLA Navy expert at the US Naval War College, has pointed out.

That being said, within most of the first island chain (FIC), an aircraft carrier would be of little use for China. It would not offer great enhancement of existing land-based assets, and would be too exposed to hostile forces. Moreover, a Chinese aircraft carrier would not be immune to the same threats that have compelled the U.S. Navy to rethink the way it operates its own carriers. China’s other neighbors have taken note of Beijing’s A2/AD build-up and are acquiring their own advanced anti-access and area-denial platforms.

We should point out that similar deployments could be executed without an aircraft carrier using existing land-based air assets, provided that China strengthens its aerial refueling capabilities. The natural environment for an aircraft carrier lies farther from Chinese shores and away from the most immediate areas of concern for Chinese military planners.

It remains to be seen whether China will attempt to build a large fleet of aircraft carriers to challenge U.S. naval dominance beyond the FIC. Arguably, this could be a “bridge too far” for China. The U.S. has mastered the art of operating aircraft carrier over decades, making incremental improvements over the years and accumulating vast amounts of institutional and personal experience. As a newcomer to the carrier game, China has none of this. However, Beijing does not need to establish a navy capable of maintaining a global presence to achieve its goals. After all, the Chinese Navy is still primarily concerned with “Near-Seas” missions. For that purpose, even a handful of aircraft carriers would add operational flexibility and an element of gunboat diplomacy.

While Taiwan’s defense planners should pay close attention to this development, as long as Taiwan continues to strengthen its sea-denial capabilities, China’s aircraft carriers alone will not significantly alter the balance of power between the two sides.

 

Michal Thim is a postgraduate research student in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute (CPI), University of Nottingham, a member of CIMSEC, an Asia-Pacific Desk Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat and a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs. Michal tweets @michalthim.

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