China's aircraft carrier may be out of its depth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 May, 2011, 12:00am


China is set to become the third country in Asia and just the 10th in the world with an active-duty aircraft carrier in its naval fleet. But amid euphoria over its forthcoming launch, analysts are sceptical about its prowess.

The latest issue of Mirror, a pro-Beijing monthly magazine, quotes an authoritive Chinese military source as saying that the Soviet-designed, Ukrainian-built Varyag, which China is refurbishing, will be handed over to the PLA on or before October 1 next year. The 66,000-tonne vessel, it says, will be a 'big present' for the 63rd National Day of the People's Republic as well as for the 18th congress of the Communist Party, due to convene around then.

The launch, it says, will take China 'from coastal defence to blue-water operations and control'. It will also end its status as the only permanent member of the UN Security Council without a carrier.

The article likens the carrier's impact to that of China's successful nuclear bomb test in 1964, which blunted the US threat of a nuclear attack on the country. 'Nuclear weapons meet the original objective only when they are unilaterally employed. Once both parties have them, they become only a psychological device. The same applies to aircraft carriers,' the article says. It concludes with a warning that China and the US should avoid 'a new cold war in the sea' with their aircraft carriers because 'such a scenario is extremely dangerous and could take the situation to the brink of Armageddon'.

The report is just the latest about China's first aircraft carrier, though possibly the only one to give such a definitive date for its deployment. The Global Times headlined its story, '70-year Chinese dream for aircraft carrier to come true with giant ship's impending launch'. The carrier has been the most talked-about military subject since pictures of the ship began to circulate unabated on the internet early last month. Subsequent images of the new ship-borne aircraft J-15, a clone of the Russian Sukhoi SU-33, of which the Varyag could carry as many as 50, were also seen on the internet, triggering heated responses in the media and online chat rooms. Most comments were upbeat and urged an early launch. 'Make one now, even a fake,' wrote one blogger.

But not everyone was cheering. Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo wrote: 'The Varyag has never been deployed and we got it when it was 70 per cent complete based on ex-Soviet operational design. We can summarise it as 'neither donkey nor horse' ... so let's say it's a mule.

'With its comprehensive operational capability, this one vessel can conduct anti-ship warfare and provide regional deterrence and control; it carries aircraft and anti-submarine helicopters. It is therefore a platform with a lot of stuff, but nothing is really good. That's why Varyag is conventionally powered, not nuclear-powered,' Yin wrote in a People's Daily chat room.

The admiral's remarks were too much for some nationals.

'Mr Yin Zhuo should not be too critical of the Varyag, which to us has gone from nothing to something. Even if it is a mule to you, it is a strong one. It can't stand up to the US nuclear carriers, but can certainly match the French [carrier] Charles de Gaulle, and can be a nightmare to the good-for-nothing thieves and bandits,' one blogger wrote.

Official records show Liu Huaqing , who later became navy commander, filed the first study of the feasibility of an aircraft carrier in 1970, when China launched its first satellite.

While there is little doubt over the launch of the Varyag (some observers have gone so far as to say President Hu Jintao will preside over the event on July 1 to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party), China experts are divides as the significance of the Varyag for regional security and the balance of power.

'The real issue is not the Varyag, but the domestically built carriers in years to come,' said Andrei Chang, chief editor of Canada-based monthly the Kanwa Defence Review.

Chang, who published a book on China's aircraft carrier last year, expressed surprise at the pace with which the refurbishment of the vessel was proceeding, given it is 'even harder than building a new ship'.

'If they can turn the ship into an operational vessel in just five years, that certainly reflects the sophistication they have acquired in shipbuilding. So long as they get the money they need, the future construction of an indigenous aircraft carrier can be done much quicker than expected,' he said.

China began building its first domestic carrier in Shanghai's Changxingdao shipyard in 2009, he said.

Chang believes the expenditure on the aircraft carrier is not reflected in the official defence budget. It is covered by what he called a 'stealth budget' paid by the Ministry of Finance from 'national defence scientific research and production expenses' .

According to his calculations, official spending on equipment purchases for the navy last year was US$4.49 billion. But the refurbishment and upgrade of Varyag could cost as much as US$5 billion, and it would take 5 billion yuan (HK$5.98 billion) to build the domestically designed carrier.

'These are just the construction costs. The annual maintenance costs are extra. But no money can buy operational experience. China's acquisition of a carrier in 2011 is like a novice getting a violin and trying to play to those who have already mastered the instrument for 80 years.'

Ma Dingsheng, a respected Hong Kong-based military commentator, also played down the significance of the PLA's first aircraft carrier. 'I don't think there is any significance at all. The ship has no combat capability, and there is not even one escort cruiser in the fleet, nor any offshore depot, which is a major handicap for a non-nuclear-powered carrier. While the US has some 60 nuclear-powered attack submarines to guard the carriers, China has only two or maybe three.'

He said it was a joke for China to think a carrier it had bought and which had no combat capability could act as a deterrent to the US and Japan, which had more than 80 years' experience of carrier operations. 'Japan is the only country in the world that took part in a true aircraft carrier battle during the second world war. How could it possibly be deterred by a third-rate Russian vessel? Deterrence might work against Taiwan. But that is redundant with the missiles pointing across the Taiwan Strait and would only push the island closer to the US and Japan. Is that what Beijing wants?' he asked.

The carrier is not likely to induce Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines to withdraw from the reefs and shoals they have occupied and pumped oil from. They may pretend to be fearful by playing up the 'China threat' to milk budgets for their militaries or appeal to the US for support.

Ma believes the underlying objective of the the PLA deploying a carrier is to secure a bigger slice of the national budget. And the ploy would work: no civilian leadership could resist the laurels to be had from launching China's first carrier.

'Between the agony of no aircraft carrier and the alarm a carrier might trigger, the Chinese government made its choice in 2004 by giving the green light to the project,' said Chang.

Ma said: 'Once the Varyag is launched, there will be more hassles in the next 10 to 20 years.'

Air power

The number of new J-15 aircraft China's Varyag aircraft carrier is thought to be able to transport: 50