Monday, July 24, 2017

Where Do They Sail and Fight?

China's second carrier is afloat. So what does China intend for these carriers?

As things now stand, the Liaoning and the new carrier can launch strikes with their J-15s operating at less than maximum range and with less than maximum payloads. They can accommodate antisubmarine helicopters. Their defensive capacity is limited by the lack of fixed-wing early warning aircraft, though in time they presumably will operate Ka-31s or their equivalents. They certainly will impress the smaller countries around the South China Sea. In a game of appearances, the presence of two or three impressive-looking Chinese carriers ought to carry considerable weight. It remains to be seen whether China’s neighbors (especially Vietnam) consider their submarine forces and land-based aircraft adequate counters.

Probably the most important role of the Liaoning and her new sister is that they will provide the Chinese Navy with experience operating carriers and air wings. A lesson of previous carrier navies is that without experience aircraft carriers can impress unsophisticated neighbors but will not provide combat power. With experience, the Chinese Navy can make good on its claim that its role is to protect Chinese vital interests abroad, beyond the first island chain to the east and to the Middle East.

In light of the distinction between power projection and sea control, the question of what the Chinese intend for the limited-capability carriers is important.

They are clearly outclassed by America's carriers and their well-trained crews. They seem unlikely to be the decisive factor in defeating the United States Navy to control the seas. They seem unlikely to be decisive for defeating the Japanese navy, for that matter.

And these carriers face their own anti-access/aerial denial threat approaching the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea that our carriers face approaching China--missiles and planes from land bases.

In theory the carriers could provide fleet air defense. But again, they are inferior for that purpose and Chinese ships would be better served relying on land-based combat air patrol.

I will say that if supported by submarines and land-based Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles, the Chinese carriers could have a shot at challenging India's fleet if the Chinese avoid Indian land-based aircraft as much as possible.

Yet even if successful, unless Indonesia cooperates, China still can't exploit the victory to control the sea lines of communication back to China. So nice effort and all that, but what of it?

So sea control seems generally pointless as a carrier mission. China's better option is their missile-armed surface ships and submarines plus land-based anti-ship assets.

Then there is power projection. The small carriers could play a decisive role in taking small islands in the South China Sea from smaller neighbors with competing claims. As long as America doesn't intervene.

The carriers could play a role in anti-piracy patrols off of Somalia. China just sent its first troops to their new base in Djibouti.

And in general, they would be useful in show-the-flag missions up and down the west side of the Indian Ocean from South Africa to the Arabian peninsula. They would be powerful in any dispute with an African coastal state.

The carrier and its task force could also sail up the Red Sea and beyond into the Mediterranean Sea to show Chinese power at the end of their New Silk Road.

And a carrier would be useful in all of these areas to help evacuate Chinese citizens in case of a local crisis. China would probably be happy to have more options than they had in Libya in 2011 when their citizens had to get out of Dodge in a hurry.

So the new limited capacity Chinese carriers have little role in sea control, a minor but real role in power projection, and a major role in diplomacy and crisis management.

Of course, I can't ignore the possibility that the purpose of these Chinese carriers--which will be second line once China starts to build carriers with catapults and more capable air wings--is to distract the United States Navy with a chance to relive the glory years of smashing Japanese World War II carriers while the Chinese conquer Taiwan.