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China's expensive yearning for aircraft carriers

No other platform speaks of naval prestige and power projection than an aircraft carrier. Nations such as France, India, Russia, the United Kingdom and the USA all have them, so it is no wonder that China is currently pursuing an ambitious programme to introduce carriers into the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

This goal also accords with China's 2015 Defense White Paper, which states that the "the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests".Yet, despite bold plans that will cost Beijing billions of yuan, China's navy and the People's Liberation Army (PLA), in general, is caught in a fascinating dichotomy. This was illustrated by last week's surprise visit of a Chinese three-ship task force in Sydney on its roundabout way home from six months of operating in the Gulf of Aden on anti-piracy duties.

Media captured images of Chinese sailors loading box loads of supplies such as baby milk powder and face whitening masks into a vehicle before embarking on one of their warships. Obviously, the PLAN was rather embarrassed that its sailors had been caught engaging in rampant consumerism in Sydney, for it swiftly prompted an opinion piece in the Global Times claiming "the hype over the baby formula purchase is similar to the hype over the 'China threat theory' or exaggerating certain facts to mislead readers".

While the PLAN may present a formidable appearance and is modernising at an unprecedented clip, the fact remains that China's military is still only emerging as a modern force and that the country is not a fully developed one.

Likewise, at China's last appearance at the RIMPAC exercise in Hawaii, precisely the same thing happened. Chinese sailors swamped the US commissary in Hawaii, buying up all manner of goods such as food, electronics and even bicycles, loading their ships up and taking the goods home either for personal use or to sell for profit.

These episodes illustrate what some are calling "realistic socialism", where Chinese citizens care more about the daily struggle to build a better life, rather than the communist party's grandiose propaganda and recollections of past glories. Though thousands of Chinese tourists are buying luxury good whilst on holiday in places like Paris, Chinese soldiers and sailors are seeking basic necessities such as baby formula.

This has a direct relation to Chinese aircraft carriers too, as explained by Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Maritime Security Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Referring to Chinese aspirations to field multiple carrier strike groups, he noted: "The bigger question is, is it sustainable or possible for China to come up with a critical mass of qualified personnel? It is not just about the sailors. The thing for a carrier is naturally about the aviators. They can probably build as many J-15s, or the new follow-up fighter, for service as a carrier-borne aviation capability, but are they able to recruit enough folk?"

Koh pointed out that a couple of months ago a report in the Chinese media revealed that the PLA Naval Air Force is seeking to expand its recruitment of aviators by looking to attract teenagers. However, carrier-borne operations are dangerous, and an unknown number of Chinese pilots have already died.

Koh brought to mind the Chinese saying, "Good sons don't become soldiers." This reflects reluctance among Chinese to risk their lives for nothing. Why should a young person choose to join the PLA, with its attendant risks and dangers, when they could earn more money from a comfortable job in the private sector?

Thus, recruitment is a dilemma for the PLA as it must compete for talent with the higher-paying private sector. "Young Chinese will prefer to work for the private sector earning better pay than to risk their lives," Koh assessed.

The PLAN already has one aircraft carrier in service, the 55,000-ton Liaoning known as the Type 001 that had been purchased as a stripped-down hull from Ukraine and totally refurbished by Chinese shipbuilders. Commissioned on 25 September 2012, China originally described it as a training ship not intended for combat missions. However, as is typical for the PLA, this claim has proved false. While it has indeed performed various training exercises, it received modifications since August 2018 to improve its combat capability.

This was confirmed by Lu Qiangqiang, an executive officer on the Liaoning. Speaking to CCTV recently, he described upgrades that "will definitely help us make the best of the ship, improve our training protocols and boost our combat capability even further. The Liaoning is shifting from a training and test ship to a combat ship. I believe this process is going faster and faster, and we will achieve our goal very soon."

Koh explained the significance of changes such as new arresting cables, an enlarged flight control tower, better electronic shielding for the superstructure, and enhanced propulsion and power systems: "Whatever was gleaned from the Liaoning trials and training exercises were transposed into the concept and implementation of the second carrier. In that regard, Liaoning received the same standards of upgrade...It is not just having Liaoningcombat-capable or combat-ready." That training status is still there, but it is also ready for combat. And another benefit is that China's first two carriers have a high degree of standardization.

This brings us to the topic of China's second carrier, the first to be indigenously designed and built. It is expected to be christened as the Shandong, and it is widely referred to as the Type 001A, although others insist it should be called a Type 002. It was launched on 26 April 2017.

The Pentagon described this second carrier in its 2019 report on China's military: "The new carrier is a modified version of the Liaoning but is similarly limited in its capabilities due to its lack of a catapult launch system and a smaller flight deck than the deck on US carriers."

It possesses a ski jump on the flight deck, but this Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) configuration is a limiting factor since aircraft cannot be loaded as heavily with fuel and munitions because of the difficulty in getting into the air. On the other hand, US Navy (USN)carriers employ Catapult-Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR), which allows aircraft with heavier payloads to be launched.

The PLAN is on the verge of commissioning this carrier. A series of sea trials are ongoing, and recent photographs showing tire marks on its flight deck confirm that flight operations have already taken place. There is an argument over whether this vessel should be called Type 001A (due to its similarity to the Ukrainian-built one) or Type 002.

The Pentagon predicted it "will likely be commissioned in 2019 - the beginning of what the PLA states will be a multi-carrier force".

It is known that the building of China's third carrier is well underway at Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. The Pentagon claimed construction began in 2018. The US military added, "China's next generation of carriers, including one that began construction in 2018, will have greater endurance and a catapult launch system capable of launching various types of fixed-wing aircraft, including early warning and anti-submarine warfare aircraft. These improvements would increase the striking power of a potential carrier battle group when deployed to areas beyond China's immediate periphery."

The Pentagon assesses this carrier will be operational by 2022, and it will probably displace 80,000-85,000 tons. Again there is confusion over its nomenclature, with a debate over whether Type 002 or Type 003 is most apt.

Discussing this third carrier, Koh commented: "There are various questions people ask. First, is it going to be a ski jump or a CATOBAR? Is it going to be steam or the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS)? Is it going to be nuclear-powered or conventional? What we can be sure of, this envisaged the third carrier is going to be a bigger one and, certainly at the very least, it will be able to carry a bigger aviation component."

Photos available on the internet show blocks and modules under construction at Jiangnan. These have a wider bow design than the Type 001/001A, suggesting that it will indeed be a CATOBAR carrier. Koh explained further, "The thing is that, having EMALS, you will need to generate sufficient electrical power. The bigger question is whether this carrier will be nuclear-powered - this is the question that people ask."

Additionally, a mock-up of the new carrier's island has been photographed at a development facility in Wuhan. It portrays a modified superstructure with an integrated mast-mounted atop the superstructure. It has eight faces designed to accommodate multiple planar arrays, which is different from the mechanically rotating H/LJQ-382 radar fitted on the first two carriers.

Work has been progressing since March on deepening the fitting-out pool for this carrier at Jiangnan. This dredging work is scheduled to be completed on 20 June, which will connect the construction site with the river via a floodable channel.

Business Standard