China Launches Its Third Aircraft Carrier

Last week’s launching of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) newest aircraft carrier attracted world attention. The ship, named Fujian, is China’s largest and most advanced aircraft carrier, rivaling US aircraft carriers in size. Capabilities, however, might be another matter altogether. I mean let’s be frank. The US Navy has decades of carrier operating experience under its belt. That has created an expertise which plays a critical role in the development of new carriers and technologies. China’s weapons and electronics, on the other hand, may look nice and comparable to US systems but likely does not measure up operationally. Then there’s the matter of training a cadre of first-rate naval aviators. It could take the Chinese some time to develop enough pilots to successfully operate an air wing from the deck of Fujian.

This carrier is just the latest milestone in China’s journey to develop a navy able to challenge the power of the US Navy. Under Xi Jinping the PLAN has undergone a massive modernization and expansion. Shipbuilding numbers have risen considerably over the last decade in every major warship class. To put it simply, China is turning out ships like hotcakes. Whether the technologies are comparable to the US Navy remains to be seen. In the end it could come down to a matter of quality (US) versus quantity (China).

China’s goal is to field six carrier battlegroups by 2035. This will give China the naval power and capabilities of a first-class blue water navy. China will be able to to project power and support it anywhere in the world. Alongside the shipbuilding surge, China has been improving its naval infrastructure by modernizing port facilities and securing berthing rights in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.

The US Navy has to focus its shipbuilding plan and warfighting doctrine on defeating a peer-level blue water navy at some point in the coming decade. At present, the US Navy is essentially steaming rudderless into a precarious future.

Wednesday 26 April 2017 Update: New Chinese Aircraft Carrier Launched

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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.

 

 

21st Century Gunboat Diplomacy

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The militarization of the South China Sea is an issue that has been slowly gaining momentum in recent months. With global eyes centered on events in Syria for so long, the scope and significance of what is happening in the South China Sea is only now sinking in. The US has been warning China for years now about the ramifications that could result from their buildup of military bases on disputed islands in the South China Sea. ASEAN member nations are quite concerned about China’s intentions and the US has made diplomatic efforts to address and resolve the issue with China and receiving nothing in return. The buildup has continued. The US upped the ante with Show of Force demonstrations with limited numbers of warships and aircraft around some of the islands. China responded by moving surface-to-air missiles and fighters to the disputed area. Beijing simply has not gotten the message. The United States is resorting to an old, but reliable tool to try and persuade China that its actions in the South China Sea should be reconsidered, if not abandoned entirely: Gunboat Diplomacy.

At the present time, the USS. John C. Stennis and her escorts are operating in the South China Sea, flexing muscle in an area that is rapidly becoming China’s armed backyard. China continues to deny that it is militarizing the area in spite of evidence to the contrary. As the standoff between the two nations continues, the presence of Stennis and her strike group in the contested waters is a clear indication that the US making a determined effort to send a clear message through power projection.  How it will be received remains to be seen.

PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) and US Navy forces are operating in close proximity at sea and in the air. Both sides have to exercise caution and be prudent while carrying out their respective missions. As we’ve seen with Turkey’s shoot down of a Russian fighter-bomber, it does not take much for a serious incident to come about. Considering that the Western Pacific is a powder keg already, it would not require much to unleash a conflagration across the whole region.

A Return to Yankee Station: Did the Navy Learn from Nichols and Tillman?

George H.W. Bush is in the Atlantic Ocean conducting carrier qualifications.

Note: I am grateful to Lee Kluck for agreeing to contribute to this blog. He will be a regular contributor and I am certain the reader will enjoy his thoughtful presentation and analysis of naval issues as much as I do. 

The other day, a friend of mine asked me what I thought of the Navy’s “New” rail gun.  The conversation itself is unimportant as far as that content is concerned.  It will be at least a decade before the Navy has a deployable rail gun.  However, that conversation did get me thinking about how the Navy planned (if they planned to do so at all) on meeting a high-low mix of technology to bridge the gap between their current technology and the war-fighting technology of the future.  Of course, I did not come up with the term high-low mix.  To the best of my knowledge, Commander John B. Nichols (USN Ret) and renown naval historian Barrett Tillman were the first ones to use the term in their seminal work On Yankee Station: The Naval Air War over Vietnam.  This fact spawned another thought and this one is important.  Did the Navy learn from the work of Nichols and Tillman?  Simply put, my answer is not as much as it should have.

In the book, first published in 1987, Nichols a former F-8 Crusader driver, and Tillman, the then editor of The Hook (the Journal of Naval Aviation) argued that to truly learn from Vietnam, and to prepare for future conflicts, the Navy needed to focus on the three P’s.

The first of these was personnel.  On this front, Nichols (the book is one part tactics treatment one part Nichols memoir) argued that the Navy had to give their experienced aviators a reason to stay in the Navy beyond just working towards promotion and retirement.  In his mind, this meant giving aviators a chance to keep flying instead of working up the career pyramid.  Otherwise, aviators would continue to leave for the greener pastures of commercial aviation.  Recent treatments show that this is less of a problem than during the “mass exodus of the mid to late 1990s”.[1]  However, the Navy is still losing qualified pilots because many of them would rather keep flying, even in the training command, than be forced to work in non-flying, career enhancing, billet.[2]  When this does not happen, they leave the service.  This fact illustrates that the words of John Nichols went unheeded.

The second P that Nichols focused on was planes.  In his mind, the Navy had become too enamored with technology and aircraft that were designed for multiple missions.  At the time, the F-18 and F-14 were the Navy’s frontline aircraft and, while he appreciated the airframes, it was the belief of Nichols that the Navy needed to augment these aircraft with a rugged, easy to maintain, single mission fighter.  Of course, this suggestion is colored by the fact that Nichols came from the F-8 community and was a huge proponent of the F-5E and F-20 Tigershark.  All three of those aircraft fit that criterion perfectly.  However, the suggestion of adopting single role aircraft that are reliant more on the pilot than a computer is still a good one that the Navy has failed to heed.  This is evident on two counts.

First, looking at a mockup of a future air wing, it is evident that the Navy is not looking to incorporate a relatively low-tech airframe in the attack role.  Instead, a future air wing will rely on the F-18F, The F-35C and its ability to provide a airborne data link to other missiles and aircraft, and the UCLASS UAV to carry the fight to the enemy.[3]  This system works well in theory.  However, there are no guarantees that it will function well in a high threat environment especially against an enemy that has invested in ways to stop the United States.  Another airframe would help cover some bases.    Secondly, the Navy has missed an opportunity to employ single mission, organic, aircraft in vital support roles such as aerial refueling (AAR) and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW).  This may not seem like a big deal.  However, in the case of AAR even drones run out of gas and it may not be possible for the Navy to rely on the Air Force tanker fleet to augment the buddy tankers currently in use in future conflicts.  In addition, it is quite likely that, in the future, the Navy will fight an opponent with a strong submarine force.  This would require a dedicated carrier-borne ASW component.  At the moment, this does not exist.  However, a rebirth of the S-3 Viking would give the Navy a low-tech, cost affordable, option that would help fill this void.

The last P outlined by Nichols was procedure.  To him, this had to do with building an institutional memory among the naval aviation community in both a training sense and written form.  The training side of the coin is where the Navy has excelled.  Since the publication of On Yankee Station the Navy has developed an integrated training program that brings together every element of naval aviation to train in a realistic environment that encapsulates every kind of possible mission that has been seen in the field since the end of the Cold War.[4]  This has allowed the Navy to deploy to different locales and not miss a step despite any holes in the current air wing composition.  Moreover, Navy aircrews are routinely interjected into Air Force and Allied training exercises in order to maintain a high level of joint interoperability.  Where the Navy could expand their knowledge base, is on the written end of the spectrum.

Specifically, it may be time to see if someone could write the next On Yankee Station.  All these years later, the book is the best source for civilians and military personnel looking to understand how the Navy flew and fought in Vietnam.  Moreover, the book does a great job highlighting the warrior spirit (embodied by John Nichols) of the pilots who flew there.  It is time for someone to continue that legacy so that the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq are not lost due to combat deaths and retirement.

Lee Kluck is an independent naval historian who specializes in naval aviation topics.

[1] Herb Carmen, “Why Our Best Officers are Leaving: A Naval Aviator’s Perspective”, Information Dissemination http://www.informationdissemination.net/2011/01/why-our-best-officers-are-leaving-naval.html (accessed 5 May 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] The best illustration of Navy thinking can be found in Dave Muumdar and Sam LaGrone, “Inside the Navy’s Next Air War”, United States Naval Insitute  (accessed 13 May 2015).

[4] Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, 2014. “Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center Command Brief.” Powerpoint, http://www.slideshare.net/robbinlaird/nsawc-command-briefjul14 (accessed 13 May 2015).