Thursday, February 07, 2019

Why Does China Want a Carrier Fleet?

Are big deck carriers a sign China is preparing to fight America or a sign that they assume they won't have to fight America?

China will build up their aircraft carrier force:

Four of at least six aircraft battle groups China plans to have in the water by 2035 will be nuclear-powered, as the Asian giant tries to equal the US in naval strength, according to Chinese military experts.

If China is building big aircraft carriers for sea control just as networked persistent surveillance and cheap precision weapons are emerging, I should feel sorry for them (almost):

Carriers are the ultimate in platform-centric warfare--even with unmanned aerial combat vehicles. But network-centric warfare is our Navy's future. The gun-armed surface warship, dispersed physically but networked to mass effect at sea or against targets on land, will keep our Navy dominant as it has been for more than sixty years. I love our carriers and their historic exploits are thrilling. But we cannot hang on to them forever when new platforms for a new network are built.

I almost feel sorry for our potential enemies who try to match our carriers (at great expense) just as we supplant them.

While we still build the big carriers, we have fewer now than in the past. And nobody is suggesting more even as we try to build up ship numbers to counter the rising Chinese navy. So while we aren't letting the carriers fade away, they are losing their central role in sea control.

But perhaps China understands the difference between power projection roles and sea control roles and recognizes the limits of carriers because of the emerging networks in sea control (regardless of what the current term of art is for that concept). There is this part in the linked article to support that notion:

Beijing is keen to expand its aircraft carrier battle groups to fulfil its global naval ambitions and defend its growing overseas interests. Construction of its next conventional diesel-powered aircraft carrier, the Type 002 – the first equipped with the electromagnetic launchers – began last year. [emphasis added]

With an expanded Chinese marine corps with missions west of Singapore, that type of carrier focus fits nicely. Remember, China itself is one massive distributed air base if the aerial sea control missions are in the western Pacific within the first island chain extending from Japan to the Philippines. China doesn't really need big carriers to fight for the control of those nearby seas.

Heck, maybe we understand what the main mission of carriers are (but I digress, as I can!).

Maybe it is even bigger than that mission understanding. Maybe the significance of building carriers is that China doesn't intend to challenge our Navy at sea and risk the dislocation at home that war with America and our allies would create, thus challenging Communist Party control at home.

Maybe China wants carriers to police their growing quasi-imperial Belt and Road trade and control initiative (aka the New Silk Road; aka OBOR) across the Indian Ocean.

Wow, I really am an optimist. Although I sometimes wonder if the Chinese see their carriers as a massive distraction that will distract the United States Navy long enough for China to achieve their real objective in a war.