Don't Call China's Liaoning a "Starter" Aircraft Carrier
Its capabilities are limited, but so is its mission.
Considering the often-difficult relationship between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies, it's not surprising that the USSR, unlike several other countries, never obtained one of the surplus American or British aircraft carriers in the years after World War II. What is less obvious is why Chiang Kai-shek's regime was unable to secure such a vessel, either before or after the retreat to Taiwan. After all, Chinese naval officers expressed an interest in aircraft carriers as far back as 1928. In any event, with the recent commissioning of the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning, international commentators and reporters have been downplaying the significance of the vessel, using phrases such as “starter carrier” and “carrier in name only.” Such assessments stem from a fundamental misreading of the strategic situation of the People's Liberation Army Navy.
Aircraft carriers are portrayed and treated as decisive craft of paramount importance, and are usually the flagships of a task force or an entire navy. Indisputably, they can make a world of difference, but some of this exalted status is questionable, especially in recent years. In other words, aircraft carriers enable a navy to project air power around the world, but they face steep hurdles to avoid becoming, in the words of a Chinese naval officer who prefers submarines, “floating coffin[s].”
It is true that the Liaoning's back-story, particularly its long gestation period, raises some questions. The ship is based on a hull purchased from Ukraine in 1998. Aircraft carriers are inevitably out of action for several months each year for servicing, though this schedule can be stretched in wartime. The Chinese are apparently constructing a pair of new carriers, but as long as the Liaoning is their sole carrier, they will not necessarily be able to count on its availability during hostilities. China's shipbuilding industry can construct very large cargo ships. Would it not be more efficient to build a pair of ski-jump equipped carriers, designed specifically to fit aircraft the Chinese already possess, and simultaneously use the years of construction to prepare the electronics and train the aircrew? Some of China's indigenous fighter aircraft have thrust-to-weight ratios similar to planes that currently operate from similar carriers in other countries. Would this not be an adequate stopgap until the folding-winged, carrier-centric J-15 fighter is operational?
A naval task force with an aircraft carrier can launch airstrikes against enemy ships without relying on land-based aircraft, and will also have fighters to provide protection from airstrikes. Even so, the Soviets had no aircraft carriers until the Cold War was nearly over, but they had no qualms about using their submarines and warships to confront enemy carrier battle groups. The Soviets were keen on using cruise missiles to hit enemy carriers very hard, very quickly, and, in an emergency, from a considerable distance. In the Second World War, submarines from both Axis and Allied navies repeatedly sank aircraft carriers, and the Argentine Navy came close to achieving this in the Falkland Islands War of 1982.
More recently, this same scenario occurred when the U.S. Navy engaged in training exercises with the Swedish submarine Gotland. The Swedish submarine apparently proved to be a formidable adversary, “sinking” the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan on at least one occasion. Perhaps more saliently, a Chinese submarine surprised the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk and the carrier's entire supporting battle group during maneuvers. The submarines in both of these incidents are modern diesel-electric craft, notorious for emitting little noise. Similar submarines (and many more midget subs) are also an increasingly large part of Iran's multifaceted naval strategy, which, it should be noted, involves more potential adversaries than the United States.
An aircraft carrier can also use its planes to provide air support to ground troops, in situations where helicopters are insufficient. However, ship-borne missiles, old-fashioned shelling, and the aforementioned armed helicopters may be adequate for most such situations faced by the Chinese. Similarly, a carrier's planes can protect an amphibious operation from air attack, if no other fighter cover is available. The British would never have been able to retake the Falklands without their two carriers and the Sea Harriers they embarked. It is possible that an amphibious task force with an extensive system of surface-to-air missiles and no fighters could be safe from air attack, and in the Chinese context this may be true, but this situation has never been put to the test.
These situations, among others, presuppose that they are relevant to China's strategic situation, and that the Liaoning should be judged on its adequacy for these missions. As it happens, however, China's navy is unlikely to fight an enemy in the middle of the Pacific or any other ocean, and, as noted above, they would not necessarily need aircraft carriers to do so. Access to maritime trade is highly important for China's economy, but even so, China is not an island, and cannot be completely blockaded easily. To alleviate dependence on fuel from overseas, China has built (and is building) pipelines from their neighbors in Central and Southern Asia. Additionally, China apparently has at least some capacity to synthesize oil from their abundant supplies of coal. Without attributing malignant motives to China's leadership, from a strategic perspective the parallels with the two largest Axis powers are obvious: the first strategy can help overcome the fuel problems, faced by Japan, while the second explicitly echoes a German strategy.
China has no overseas possessions with large populations in need of protection. It is also difficult to imagine the Chinese going to war to support any foreign, overseas regime. This simply does not fit with any pattern of Chinese policy, though in a world with changing balances of relative power, it is plausible that some elements in the Chinese military and civilian leadership might feel emboldened by the presence of the Liaoning and its successors.
In short, aircraft carriers can do some unique, extraordinary things, and the Chinese navy will gain these capabilities with the addition of the Liaoning and its successors. China's naval skeptics are right to point out, however, that aircraft carriers have many inherent vulnerabilities and liabilities. It would be a mistake for the Chinese to plan their future naval growth strategy around aircraft carriers and the battle groups needed to support them. Likewise, it would be a mistake for foreign observers to assume that the Chinese are following the patterns of other nations by doing so.
Scott Ryan Charney received an M.A. in U.S. Foreign Policy from American University.