Chinese aircraft carriers play ‘theatrical’ role but still pose little threat

HONG KONG: When China sailed one of its two active aircraft carriers, the Shandong, east of Taiwan last month in military exercises around the island, it demonstrated a capability that he has yet to master and which could take years to perfect.
As Beijing modernizes its military, its formidable missile forces and other warships, such as state-of-the-art cruisers, are of concern to the United States and its allies. But it could be more than a decade before China can mount a credible aircraft carrier threat far from its shores, according to four military attachés and six defense analysts familiar with regional naval deployments.
Instead, Chinese aircraft carriers are more of a propaganda centerpiece, with doubts about their value in a possible conflict with the United States over Taiwan and whether China could protect them during longer-range missions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, attachés and analysts told Reuters. .
China’s Defense Ministry has not responded to questions about its transport program, though dozens of articles in state-linked journals reviewed by Reuters reveal Chinese military analysts are aware of capability shortfalls. country transportation.
While some regional news articles, partly based on Chinese state media reports, have described recent exercises around Taiwan as active patrols and a military challenge for the United States and its allies, the aircraft carriers Chinese are indeed still in training mode, said eight of the experts.
Landing planes at night and in bad weather, for example – crucial to the regular operations of offshore carriers – remains far from routine, several attachés and analysts said.
And in a conflict, Chinese aircraft carriers would be vulnerable to missile and submarine attacks, some experts said, noting that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has not perfected protective operations , especially anti-submarine warfare.
“Unlike other parts of their military modernization, there is something politically theatrical about their carrier deployments so far,” said Trevor Hollingsbeea former British naval intelligence analyst.
“Carrier operations are a very complicated game, and China has to solve it on its own. It still has a long, long way to go.”
At times, Chinese carrier pilots have relied on land airfields for takeoffs or landings, as well as additional air cover and surveillance, the attachés told Reuters on condition of anonymity because they were not not allowed to speak publicly.
And although China’s Liaoning and Shandong aircraft carriers have each cruised the Western Pacific in recent months, approaching US bases in Guam, they have remained within range of China’s coastal airfields, according to Mama Laughsprofessor of security studies at Takushoku University’s Institute of Global Studies, who reviewed Japanese Ministry of Defense tracking data.
Both the Liaoning – a refitted former Soviet ship – and the Chinese-built Shandong have jump ramps for take-offs, which limits the number and range of planes on board.
Anti-submarine helicopters operate from both aircraft carriers and Chinese Type 055 cruisers, but the carriers have yet to deploy early warning aircraft, relying as far as present on landplanes, the 10 experts said.
A new aircraft, the KJ-600, designed to perform a similar role to the E-2C/D Hawkeye launched from US carriers, is still in the testing phase, according to the Pentagon’s latest annual report on the Chinese military.
From springboards to catapults
As Liaoning and Shandong gradually increase the pace of their exercises, China is preparing for sea trials of its next-generation aircraft carrier, the 80,000-ton Fujian, state media reported last month. The Fujian is much larger, although conventionally powered, and will launch aircraft from electromagnetic catapults.
The ship, which the Pentagon report says could be operational by 2024, is expected to carry new variants of the J-15 jet fighter, replacing the existing model that foreign analysts consider underpowered.
“Fujian, with its more modern capabilities, will be just another test bed for a few years,” said Collin Koh, a defense scholar at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“It’s not until we see the next generation of carriers that Chinese designs and PLAN intentions will really stabilize.”
The transportation program reflects the ruling Communist Party’s goal of making the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a “world-class” military by 2049, as part of President Xi Jinping’s vision to build ” a great modern socialist country”.
An indication of China’s ambitions, the attachés say, will be for carriers built after Fujian to be nuclear-powered like those in the United States, enabling global reach.
A study released in December by the nonpartisan US Congressional Research Service noted that China would use its carriers to project power “particularly in scenarios that do not involve opposing US forces” and “to impress or intimidate foreign observers”.
Several countries operate aircraft carriers, but the United States remains the most dominant, with 11 carrier battle groups with global reach.
China, by contrast, could use its aircraft carriers primarily in the Asian theater, working in tandem with submarines and anti-ship missiles to try to control its near seas.
Shandong’s appearance off Taiwan’s east coast to stage mock strikes last month surprised some analysts, given the island’s proximity to land airfields. But, in the short term at least, the Chinese military would struggle to defend the aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific in a clash with US and allied forces.
“China’s objective with the deployment of Shandong is clear, it is a symbol of its political anger” at the American engagement with Taiwan, said Yoji Kodaa retired admiral who commanded the Japanese fleet.
In a battle, he said, it would be “a very good target for American and Japanese forces, and they would take it out early on.”
A US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly, said while China had made progress with its carriers, it still needed to master operations in difficult conditions or how to protect ships.
One question was how the ships would be relevant in a conflict, the official said.
Hopes and shortcomings
Chinese military and government researchers seem aware of the challenges, according to a Reuters review of more than 100 recent articles published in dozens of publicly available Chinese defense journals.
The official PLA Daily published an interview with an aircraft carrier aviation unit in October where Deputy Chief of Staff, Dai Xingacknowledged “many deficiencies in war readiness”, and a gap between the level of sailor training and combat requirements.
A September editorial in a magazine run by a PLA arms maker, titled “Four Great Advantages of the PLA in Attacking Taiwan,” did not mention the role of Chinese aircraft carriers. Instead, he said, China’s land-based ballistic missiles would be enough to overwhelm potential US carrier intervention.
Two earlier editorials in the same publication, Tank and Armored vehiclenoted that Chinese aircraft carriers would remain in their infancy for the foreseeable future and that other surface ships would be more useful in a conflict in the East China Sea.
Other articles in similar publications describe problems with recruiting and training pilots, vulnerabilities to attack problems and commanding submarines – which some foreign analysts say is a problem for a sailing navy. always with political commissars endowed with executive power.
When at sea, US carriers fly almost constantly, regularly using fighter, electronic warfare and surveillance aircraft to create a protective screen around the battle group.
Beyond the cost and danger of such operations, a key element is the mastery of decentralized command systems, particularly in the event of a crisis such as a fire or a crash on board when the planes are in flight and the cockpit is disabled.
The United States has spent decades perfecting such systems, having expanded carrier operations after their importance was highlighted during the Allied victory over Japan in the Pacific in World War II.
“The continued operation of its carriers is at the very heart of what makes the US military absolutely preeminent,” said Alexander Neill, a Singapore-based defense analyst and associate fellow at Hawaii’s Pacific Forum think tank.
In the medium term, China should begin sending battlegroups to the Indian Ocean, where Chinese presence is minimal beyond routine submarine operations, defense attachés and analysts said.
Operating away from the safety of land airfields would test China’s capabilities, but preparations are underway.
The jetty at China’s first major offshore military base in Djibouti was recently expanded and could now accommodate an aircraft carrier, the Pentagon report notes.


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