Saturday, March 12, 2016

Have we been outsmarted by China in the Western Pacific?

I find The National Interest to be an interesting read upon occasion. I'm not sure what their editorial inclination is -- conservative or liberal -- but they seem to be straight shooters. I've cited them often, although not always agreeing with them. They seem to have some sharp folks working for them.

Having said all that, I'm not sure what to think of the latest piece from them I read regarding China's naval power. They seem to minimize China's naval power projection capabilities:

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) aircraft carriers won’t be able to conduct blue water operations in the way the U.S. Navy’s flattops do. Nor will the PLAN have global power projection capabilities akin to those afforded by America’s fleet of supercarriers. That’s the assessment of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency.
. . .

Indeed, China’s current aircraft carrier, the 55,000-ton Liaoning—which was originally built in Ukraine before the collapse of the Soviet Union—is about half the size of an American Nimitz-class vessel. Moreover, the Chinese carrier is equipped with a ski-jump rather than catapults—limiting its ability launch heavier aircraft.

China’s follow-on aircraft carrier—which is under construction at the Dalian shipyards—is also based on the Russian Project 1143.5 Orel design like Liaoningand Kuznetsov. That means, until China develops an indigenous aircraft carrier with either steam or electromagnetic catapults, the PLAN will not have a flattop comparable to a Nimitz or Ford-class carrier.
I think this analysis sells short China's power-projection plans. This is China's only aircraft carrier at the moment:

I don't think it serves as the basis for China's strategic plans in the Pacific. It does not appear that China plans to send these carriers far from land-based air cover. In fact, that seems to be the entire basis behind China's efforts in the disputed Spratly Islands, Claimed my numerous Southeast Asian countries, including China, Vietnam and the Philippines. China is aggressively moving into those islands and expanding some of them to accommodate air fields, turning semi-submerged coral reefs into coral aircraft carriers:
China will be able to project "substantial offensive military power" from artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea's disputed Spratly Islands within months, the director of U.S. national intelligence said.
In a Feb. 23 letter to John McCain, chair of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, James Clapper said Chinese land reclamation and construction work in the Spratlys had established infrastructure needed "to project military capabilities in the South China Sea beyond that which is required for point defense of its outposts."
"Based on the pace and scope of construction at these outposts, China will be able to deploy a range of offensive and defensive military capabilities and support increased PLAN and CCG presence beginning in 2016," Clapper said in the letter released this week, using acronyms for the Chinese navy and coastguard.
"Once these facilities are completed by the end of 2016 or early 2017, China will have significant capacity to quickly project substantial offensive military power to the region," Clapper added.
Clapper, who also is responsible for listening to your phone calls and reading your emails -- eat me, Clapper -- isn't just whistling Dixie here. China won't need aircraft carriers the way we do -- a carrier wing has about 80 aircraft of all types -- fighters, bombers, radar aircraft, transports, anti-submarine, you name it -- on a single aircraft carrier. An air base on land can have as many aircraft of whatever types it wants as long as it has room. The U.S. has 10 aircraft carriers, plus 9 amphibious assault ships that carry some fixed-wing aircraft and some helicopters. Most countries would call these aircraft carriers, but we don't, because they simply don't have the punch of a full-fledged Nimitz- or Ford-class aircraft carrier.These ships are amphibious assault ships, carrying a handful of vertical-takeoff fighters and a bunch of helicopters. Mostly, they carry Marines around the world, hoping that they can invade some foreign shore. They aren't aircraft carriers.

So, with 10 real aircraft carriers versus China's one (at the moment), we should feel pretty good, right? No. The Chinese are building airbases in the Spratlys, and each of those bases likely will have more aircraft than any single US aircraft carrier. Also, those bases cannot be sunk. Should China decide to launch offensive military operations from those islands against, say, a US ally such as the Philippines, we would be hard-pressed to stop them. Aircraft carriers are vulnerable to sinking, and we don't really have 10 of them. At any given moment, we probably have more like five. They're like Jaguars -- always in the shop.

So sure, China's aircraft carriers might not stack up to U.S. carriers. Depending upon China's decisions on how to use its carrier -- or future carriers -- for strategic force projection, they might not have to.

No comments: