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Perception outweighs ability as China builds blue-water fleet

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Chinese aircraft carriers won’t be able to compete with the combat power of the U.S. Navy any time soon, but experts say that won’t be obvious to many people when the great ships start to exercise, make port calls and respond to natural disasters in the Pacific.

As the one of the most technologically advanced in the world, China is dead set on flexing its military muscle.

For decades, the U.S. Navy has controlled the world’s waterways, in both size and strength. But China appears to be preparing to challenge U.S. supremacy by accelerating the construction of a second aircraft carrier.  Plans for several more carriers — including one being built at a shipyard in the coastal city of Dalian — were announced by a senior Chinese official last month.

China launched its first aircraft carrier — the 74,406-ton Liaoning — just two years ago.

The plans don’t come as a surprise to U.S. military commanders. In a report to Congress last year, the Department of Defense predicted: “China … will likely build multiple aircraft carriers over the next decade. The first Chinese-built carrier will likely be operational sometime in the second half of this decade.”

U.S. naval commanders, who have been ordered to move the bulk of their fleet to the Pacific theater, say it’s clear that China is building a “blue-water navy,” capable of sustained operations across oceans and able to project power far from home.

While the U.S. Pacific Command has not commented directly on the latest reports about the Chinese carrier program, its commander, Adm. Samuel Locklear, addressed China’s weapons systems during a Jan. 23 media briefing.

“Our relative dominance in … technologies and … weapons systems will have diminished over time,” he said. “That’s not something to be afraid of; it’s just to be pragmatic about it.”

Some naval experts say the U.S. must keep an eye on China’s naval buildup, but most don’t think Chinese aircraft carriers will be able to compete with the U.S. behemoths like the Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan-bound USS Ronald Reagan any time soon.

“Building it is the easiest part; operating carrier task forces is much tougher,” Ralph Cossa, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.

An effective aircraft carrier isn’t just a ship, explained Mark Jacobson, a fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States. “It’s a weapons system that includes planes that can take off from a carrier and pilots who can execute one of the most difficult maneuvers in aviation.” which is landing on a deck at sea.

Michael O’Hanlon, of The Brookings Institution, said it’s clear that the Chinese can build numerous carriers but added: “The Chinese remain 20 years behind the U.S. in any realistic pursuit of naval parity.”

But Jan Van Tol, a retired U.S. Navy captain who is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C., said more Chinese carriers will have an impact even if they are far less capable than U.S. ships.

“Military professionals will know the difference, but other important audiences may not, and could credit … ships with having far more capability and combat utility than they actually would have in combat,” he said.

The Chinese might be able to show that they can compete with America by conducting exercises, making port visits and providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief with ships that look like carriers, even if they lack the capabilities of U.S. ships, he said.

Cossa said people should beware of the “Wizard of Oz” effect.

“China is casting a big shadow that is disproportionate to its actual strength,” he said, adding that the statement applied to both economic and military power.

“A single aircraft carrier, with limited range aircraft and little blue water experience, hardly makes China a major sea power, but people are already reacting to the shadow rather than the little guy behind the screen,” he said.

Start of a race?

It’s clear that Chinese military build-up is unsettling to its neighbors.

Last month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called China’s recent military spending a “provocation.”

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Abe compared the relationship between Japan and China to that of Germany and Britain before World War I.

In the days before the invention of the aircraft carrier, British King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany — yacht-racers and cousins — were engaged in a head-to-head battle to build “Dreadnoughts” — the biggest and most powerful battleships the world had known.

In 1906, the newly built HMS Dreadnought was so much bigger, faster and more powerful than its predecessors that it made all other ships obsolete, according to historian Robert K. Massie, who wrote “Dreadnought — Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War.”

When the Germans began building their own Dreadnaughts that same year, an arms race had been launched.

But soon, cuts to the British defense budget limited the Royal Navy’s ability to grow its Dreadnought fleet, and the Germans began a breakneck construction program, Massie wrote in the book.

In less than a decade, Germany launched its massive fleet in the North Sea. World War I began shortly thereafter.

Jacobson said there’s a chance that an aircraft carrier arms race could play out between the U.S. and China, but that competition to develop other weapons systems is more likely.

“Are we looking at the 21st-century version of the Dreadnought phenomenon? Perhaps. There might be those who think [there will be] a symmetrical back and forth where whoever has the most carriers wins,” he said.

However, Jacobson said it’s possible that new weapons, such as advanced cruise missiles, could limit carriers’ effectiveness.

It makes more sense for military planners to take a more diverse approach to defense acquisitions, he said.

“If you take the route of trying to build more than the other person, that is going to limit what you can do in other areas,” he said. “I think the Chinese would be better served to spend more on cyber arena than they are in the aircraft carrier arena.”

Even if the Chinese attempt to build more aircraft carriers than the U.S., defense experts don’t believe that would force America to add to its fleet.

Van Tol said the U.S. should continue to demonstrate routine forward presence of naval forces and continued superiority in the overall military balance in Asia, as well as reassure allies that major reinforcement could be introduced in a timely fashion if required.

robson.seth@stripes.com
Twitter: @sethrobson1 

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