China may be ready to launch its first aircraft carrier in 2011, Chinese military and political sources said on Thursday, a year ahead of U.S. military analysts' expectations.
Analysts expect China to use its first operational aircraft carrier to ensure the security of its oil supply route through the Indian Ocean and near the disputed Spratly Islands, but full capability is still some years away.
"The period around July 1 next year to celebrate the (Chinese Communist) Party's birthday is one window (for launch)," one source with ties to the leadership told Reuters, requesting anonymity because the carrier programme is one of China's most closely guarded secrets.
One, "operational" is the key word here. Shi Lang will be used as a training platform for naval aviators not yet fully trained.
Second, a single Chinese carrier operating in the Indian Ocean would lead a brief and exciting life if it actually had to defend their sea oil import routes back to China. In peacetime, it would look impressive to the locals, but it would burn and sink in a war with America or even India. And that assessment assumes such a clash took place after the Chinese have the decade or so of experience they'd need to really exploit the platform.
To me, the most logical mission for a single Chinese aircraft carrier task force would be to park itself east of Taiwan, out of range of Taiwan's air force, in order to pose a threat to any American or Japanese naval forces trying to reach Taiwan to help them hold off a Chinese invasion. The carrier's fighters would also be useful in complicating our use of Guam- or Japan-based air assets to hit a Chinese invasion fleet in the Taiwan Strait. B-52s flying out of Guam carrying long range anti-ship cruise missiles would need fighter escorts to guard against being shot down by Chinese carrier-based fighters.
Finally, what does a commitment to building aircraft carriers say about China's faith in their DF-21 carrier killer ballistic missiles? Surely, if they think they have an Assassin's mace to nullify our carrier advanatage, they must assume we could do the same to their carriers?
So in the end, we'll have to watch for how many carrier hulls the Chinese lay down. If it is just two or three, we can be sure that the Chinese do not think it is so much a weapon for war but a peacetime presence platform to show others that China can build big deck carriers carrying catapult-assisted planes just like the Americans (well, probably not like our super carriers but more like the British planned carriers or the French carrier).
Or it could be all of that. Nobody says that China has to have a monolithic official position on carriers. Some may view them as primary, decisive weapons in war. Others as symbols of power to impress other countries. And others may see them as just expensive targets that would be smashed by American carriers or long-range missiles of our own.
Strategypage has more on the background, here.