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Liaoning – Paper Tiger or Growing Cub?

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
September 27, 2012

The Liaoning, China's first aircraft carrier, seen following its maiden sea trial at Dalian Port, Liaoning province, on August 15, 2011. The Liaoning, China's first aircraft carrier, seen following its maiden sea trial at Dalian Port, Liaoning province, on August 15, 2011. (China Daily China Daily Information Corp - CDIC/Courtesy Reuters)


Colonel Brian Killough is the U.S. Air Force Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

On Tuesday, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) joined 9 other nations—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, India, Thailand, Spain, Italy, and Brazil—that have aircraft carriers in their naval arsenal. But what does that mean for nations in the region and how should we assess the long-term implications?

For many regional observers, the announcement hardly ruffles feathers. In fact, some see it as a liability. For example, “The fact is the aircraft carrier is useless for the Chinese Navy,” You Ji, a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, said in an interview. He continued, “If it is used against America, it has no survivability. If it is used against China’s neighbors, it’s a sign of bullying.” Chinese leaders are the first to admit the Liaoning is for training purposes only and in fact, China’s air force doesn’t even have aircraft capable of landing on the carrier. Furthermore, carriers are more vulnerable without their protective and supporting battle groups. These battle groups require technology, investment, and training over the course of a decade or more to bring them together as an effective fighting force. Meanwhile, as pointed out above, as a concentration of capabilities, resources, and manpower, a carrier quickly becomes both a high-value asset and a high-value target for adversaries.

What benefit does the carrier bring to the PRC? First, it is a symbol of national pride for a nation that is rallying more and more frequently to nationalism in the waters of the East and South China Sea. Second, it serves as a testbed and developmental vessel for the next generation of up to five more Chinese carriers which have been reported to be in design and development. Third, even if the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has no desire to go into battle with other world superpowers, it would certainly give the nation an option for displaying military might in regions where the PRC has strategic interests around the globe. This hearkens back to the concept of nineteenth century gunboat diplomacy. For example, if you are a coastal African nation with significant resource trade with the PRC and there is a dispute over future rights or how Chinese citizens are treated, and a PRC aircraft carrier shows up off your coastline, it may influence your decision calculus. It also gives the PLAN a lot of staying power closer to home in the disputed areas of the East and South China Seas. If the ship is equipped with a wing of J-15 aircraft (currently under development in China), and then deployed near the Senkaku/Diaoyu, Paracel, or Spratly Islands, the PRC will have arguably established sustainable air dominance over the area.

So, the question remains, is the Liaoning a significant new capability or is it a waste of money on a capability that China will never realize? The reality probably lies between the two possibilities. PRC leaders understand that with exponentially increasing demands for raw goods caused by their growing economy, they must be prepared to field a blue-water navy to protect their strategic interests. The Liaoning is a measured step in the long trek toward a globally-capable navy that an emerging superpower needs. For a nation that takes a long and measured view of history, it is a logical investment. It is also a solid indicator of intent, but not a threat … yet.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. government or Department of Defense.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by PLA soldier

    Actually this carrier is a training and experimental carrier.

    China is building 2 conventional 65,000 ton catapult carriers. Both will be unveiled by 2015.

    After 2015, china will start to build 6 nuclear 100,000 ton EMALS supercarriers.

    That will be overall 9 carriers including the Liaoning.

    China already has the escort fleet to form a carrier strike group.

    China recently unveiled the 8,000 ton type 052D destroyer with 64 hot launched VLS that can fire missiles for AAW, AShM, ASW, LACM.

    Then the 12,000 ton type 055 cruiser is under construction that will have 128 VLS cells. It will be launched in 2013.

    Then china has the type 054A frigate that is one of the most advanced frigates in the world. 16 of them are already built.

    China has the type 095 nuclear submarine under construction which will have some of the most modern systems in the world and will make it comparable to the Seawolf/Virginia class subs in the USN.

    China also has many type 903A replenishment oilers under construction which will be launched soon.

    The naval air wing for the carrier will consist of J-15 which is comparable to the F-18E/F super hornet in terms of performance and capability.
    Then the recently unveiled J-31 stealth fighter will complement the J-15 onboard the carrier. The J-31 is comparable to the F-35 naval version in performance and capability.
    Also attack helicopters like the Z-10 will also be onboard, which is comparable to the AH-64 apache.

    Whoever wrote this article clearly has no clue about the development of the PLAN and is not upto date.

    China will have 9 aircraft carrier strike groups with type 055 cruisers, type 052D destroyers, type 054A frigates, type 095 SSN and type 903A replenishment oilers all supporting the aircraft carrier.

  • Posted by tom

    Doesn’t matter it is a paper tiger or not. China needs to advance its military power. It cannot depend on US or Russia for China’s interests. China cannot sit back and hide behind other powers.

  • Posted by Chris

    China is putting a lot of resources into its military, but what is it doing to and for its people? It may soon learn the hard lessons that the former soviet union learned.

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