Friday, June 22, 2018

In the Nick of Too Late?

What role do the Chinese envision for their aircraft carriers? Prestige, sea control, or bait?

Strategypage notes that a Chinese pilot conducted the first ever night landing on a Chinese carrier, which is a big deal.

The post then goes on to discuss American combat UAV development for the Navy, which is crucial to extending the range of carrier aircraft to give the carriers a chance to get close enough to targets to launch strikes within the lengthening range of Chinese anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems (cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, aircraft).

One thing that strikes me is that the Chinese may be entering the carrier field just in time for their dark ages as a sea control weapon under threat by cheap, networked missiles married to persistent surveillance networks.

My belief is that carriers are useful for two missions: sea control and power projection. Sea control is defeating enemy fleets to control the seas. Power projection is striking targets ashore in the absence of enemy capacity to strike the carriers at sea. 

Unfortunately, the debate has often been an apples and oranges debate here, with proponents of carriers extolling the usefulness in the power projection mission while ignoring the problems of surviving a sea control mission. Opponents of carriers focus on the vulnerability without seriously acknowledging the power projection value.

Of course, China may want a limited number of carriers just for peacetime presence missions and power control missions against smaller states. China may realize that carriers are vulnerable to those missile networks, and that just as China threatens American carriers, American, Japanese, South Korean, and Indian missiles will be too potent for China to risk their carriers to control the seas.

And if that is true, China might very well use their first couple carriers to leverage America's continued belief in carriers as sea control weapons by dangling those first, simpler carriers as bait to occupy the American Navy in a glorious carrier battle while China captures their true objective--like Taiwan, for example.

On the other hand, it is possible that massed carriers networked for defense could survive and fight--with more and longer ranged UAVs on the carriers--within an enemy A2/AD envelope.

But I just don't if it is worth it to invest so much money in these expensive and vulnerable ships for the mission of sea control when anti-ship missiles on a variety of platforms and networked in a 24/7 surveillance network would work as well and be better able to lose parts and keep working.

What role do the Chinese see for their carriers and how many will they build?