Thursday, April 28, 2011

Yin and Yang

Chinese missiles and aircraft, as well as a more capable navy, mean that our ships have to approach within range of those assets more carefully to avoid excessive losses. Once, our Navy could pretty much just stay over the horizon from China and the Chinese would have had difficulty spotting us let alone attacking us. So this is new territory. And with important allies like South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan (and let's add Vietnam as a growing friend of convenience) close to China, this affects our ability to rapidly support them in time of war. China's imminent carrier launch and their plans for more carriers add to the alarm and symbolize growing Chinese power projection capabilities.

But we should not panic:

The Shi Lang has a maximum capacity of 50 jets and 18 helicopters, but it appears that China will not be using this many aircraft on their carriers initially. The Russians never maxed out the air wing on these ships either. Moreover, the most common use of Chinese carriers in the first few years will be training and, on occasion, "showing the flag" (visiting foreign ports to, well, show off.)
In the short run, this is a training and PR exercise to demonstrate that America does not have a monopoly on large carriers--the modern symbol of a superpower--in the western Pacific.

But even when China can look forward to the day that China has operational carriers with better trained crews and air wings, we still shouldn't panic. Remember why we worry about the survivability of our carriers approaching Chinese land-based power? Well those worries apply to China's carriers, too. Worse for China, PLAN carriers don't need to sail to the eastern Pacific before they can be struck by our naval and air assets. We have air bases on Guam and in Japan and South Korea. I dare say in an emergency, the Philippines would also allow basing rights. Plus we'll have aircraft carriers hovering at the edge of Chinese power projection forces capable of launching aircraft closer to China.

Heck, China's carriers are under the gun while they sit in home port. The threats to China's future carriers only multiply when they leave port to find mines or submarines waiting for them. We also have strong allies already there in the western Pacific with their own aircraft and fleets that threaten Chinese fleet units while in China's own backyard, even before we throw in our assets.

I've worried that the loss of a carrier (or more) in the western Pacific should we come to blows with China would be a major psychological blow to America given how much our super carriers are seen as a symbol of our power. Even though our Navy could fight and win without our super carriers, the image of a big carrier in flames and going down would be potent. But with Chinese carriers going under the waves, too, that morale threat is lessened somewhat. And if we hold our carriers back while we and our allies attack enemy assets--including smashing up those new Chinese carriers--the psychological advantage swings to our side.

Chinese carriers are a threat. But they are also an opportunity. Work the problem. Don't curl up in a fetal position and cry of our inevitable doom.

UPDATE: Oh, and while we're scanning the heavens on watch against the high-profile DF-21, let's not forget the threat of quiet non-nuclear subs sneaking up and sending a salvo of missiles or torpedoes directly into one of our carriers without the elaborate kill chain necessary for the DF-21 to work. Mastering basic anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is far more urgent.