The People’s Republic of China has launched its second aircraft carrier in the port city of Dalian. This ship will be the first domestically built carrier, however, it will not likely enter service until 2020. At present the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) has one aircraft carrier in service, the Liaoning, an ex-Soviet Kuznetsov class ship. When Liaoning became operational it was suspected that the ship was serving as a testbed of sorts for China’s aircraft carrier program. Judging by the first photos of the new carrier, which show its design has borrowed heavily from the Liaoning, the suspicion is reasonable. The flight deck layout and island structure is nearly identical to the Liaoning and its displacement of 50,000 tons is on par with the earlier carrier.
This is a big step for China. It has been over twenty years since the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis when two US carrier battlegroups were rushed to Taiwan in a traditional show-of-force that deterred Beijing from taking aggressive action against the island nation. The crisis forced China to acknowledge the threat posed to them by US aircraft carriers and accelerate its military buildup, and begin to consider building or purchasing aircraft carriers of its own.
The PLAN has taken on a more prominent role in China’s foreign policy as the South China Sea and Senkaku situations moved to the forefront of national priorities and international scrutiny. Large scale naval exercises and Chinese warships appearing at far-flung locations around the world were common in 2016 and act as the vanguard of China’s growing ability to project power and influence events with its own maritime forces. The ongoing buildup of US naval forces in the Sea of Japan serves both as a mirror of what the PLAN is striving to become, as well as an illustration of the sort of US involvement in regional matters that China wishes to deter.
While people here in the United States recover from the raucous election season and start coming to terms with the reality that Donald J. Trump will be the 45th President of the United States, the Russian military is preparing for the final assault on Aleppo. It was widely anticipated that no major effort would be made by Syrian and Russian forces until after the US election had concluded. Now, as expected, that offensive is likely just days away from beginning.
In the Eastern Mediterranean the Russian battlegroup spearheaded by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, and the nuclear powered battlecruiser Pytor Velikiy has arrived off of Syria and is preparing to begin combat operations. Aircraft from the carrier have begun conducting reconnaissance flights in the Aleppo area. Interaction flights around Khmeimim Air Base near Latakia have been underway for the past four days as aircrews from the Kuznetsov work to familiarize themselves with air operations over Syrian airspace.
At the same time, activity has been increasing at Engels Air Base, outside of Saratov, Russia. Engels is home to Tu-95 Bear and Tu-160 strategic bombers. This morning TASS reported that those bombers are being readied for imminent strikes on targets in Syria. The crews have been placed on ‘combat readiness,’ while the aircraft and munitions are being prepared for the upcoming sorties. TASS has also reported that the bombers are being armed with cruise missiles.
This is the period of opportunity which I mentioned in previous the previous post. Between now and 20 January, 2017 Russia will have an opening to expand operations in Syria without having to concern itself with inciting a decisive response from the United States. With the transition period underway in Washington, the Obama administration is not in a position to take major action in Syria and run the risk of worsening the situation for the incoming Trump administration. Vladimir Putin also needs to be cautious. He has a free hand in Syria, but taking similar action in Ukraine or Eastern Europe would invite a strong US and Western response, transition period or not.