China Plans New Generation of Aircraft Carriers

On Monday last week, The Diplomat’s Harry Kazianis wrote that the value of China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier remains, for now, mostly symbolic:

As our own Naval Diplomat noted, several months back:

“Carriers steam in company with a coterie of escorts and support vessels. The PLA Navy, however, has not yet filled out the remainder of a carrier task force. The navy’s newest guided-missile destroyers appear adequate for air-defense purposes, but anti-submarine warfare remains a puzzling shortfall—particularly since China’s likely adversaries, the United States and Japan, excel at undersea operations. Combat logistics—oilers, ammunition ships, refrigerated stores ships—remains another glaring shortcoming for the PLA Navy. These unglamorous but crucial vessels can replenish men-of-war, allowing them to stay at sea for long intervals without returning to port. Chinese task forces will remain vulnerable and tethered to shore logistical support until shipbuilders plug these gaps in the inventory.” [See more on the Chinese military’s developing support capacity from David Lague at Reuters, via CDT.]

So while China’s new carrier has certainly made huge strides in its development from being a partially completed dream of the Soviet Navy to the Liaoning, the ship must be considered part of the development of a larger goal — the creation of a Chinese carrier strike group. The development of such a potent and complex asset takes time. Flight crews need countless hours of training to start. Kinks in carrier operations need to be sorted out. The list could go on and on.

PLA Navy deputy chief of staff Song Xue gave some details of China’s future carrier plans the following day, announcing that the Liaoning will be joined by an escort of destroyers, frigates, submarines and supply ships, and ultimately by a new generation of larger, domestically built carriers. From Michael Forsythe at Bloomberg News:

Future aircraft carriers will carry more fighter jets than the Liaoning, Rear Admiral Song Xue told foreign military attaches yesterday in Beijing, according to the official Xinhua New Agency. The carrier was built around a Soviet-era hull and began trials at sea last year.

The remarks signal that the People’s Liberation Army will push ahead with a modernization plan under which defense spending has more than doubled since 2006. China has been more assertive in pressing sovereignty claims against Japan as well as Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea.

“This only adds publicly to what many believed to be the case: that the Liaoning is a training or ‘starter’ carrier and eventually China would build larger and more capable ones,” Taylor Fravel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who focuses on China’s relations with its neighbors, said by e-mail. “It suggests that today’s PLA is much more confident than in the past regarding its willingness to talk about future military programs.”

Things might have gone rather differently for the Liaoning, née Riga, and later Varyag. Macau gambling tycoon Stanley Ho reportedly had plans to turn it into a floating casino, a fate also proposed for Britain’s retired HMS Ark Royal.