By Craig Guthrie
HUA HIN, Thailand – Beijing’s low-key launch of its first aircraft carrier on Wednesday was aimed at allaying fears of the United States and regional neighbors over the vessel’s impact on the balance of power in the Pacific. However, even Chinese officials admit the as-yet-unnamed craft remains a warship at its heart.
Labeled a “scientific research and training” vessel by Beijing, the craft is the result of years long retrofitting of the Soviet-era, Ukrainian-built Varyag. It is expected to be the named the Shi Lang after a 17th-century admiral who reclaimed Taiwan for the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), but this won’t be confirmed until its official maiden voyage.
As the silhouette of her distinctive sloped runway crossed the horizon and headed out to sea early on Wednesday – authorities have forbid navigation “in an area of sea 13.25 nautical miles wide and 22 nautical miles long in the northern Yellow Sea and Liao Dong Bay from August 10 to 14” – decades of speculation over the craft’s significance showed no sign of abating.
While some argue the carrier, the first of three believed to be under construction in China, is so technically inferior to the US’s behemoth carriers that it is more a threat to its own sailors than other nations, others see it as menacing statement of intent over China’s claims to Taiwan and islands in the South China Sea.
More realistically, its immediate tasks will be boosting the morale of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), escorting cargo ships through pirated waters and anti-terrorism and emergency relief operations, according to a senior captain and director of Naval Research Institute of the People’s Liberation Army writing in the China Daily.
However, he adds, “Since an aircraft carrier is a warship, it has a very important military value and can be used as a deterrent against other countries … There is no doubt aircraft carriers will continue to play a decisive role in sea battles. Some other countries have forcibly occupied some of China’s islands and their surrounding waters, and other maritime resources.”
United States military officials mostly agree with the PLAN estimations of the carrier’s future roles, even suggesting there is scope for joint operations.
“The Chinese will learn from the Shi Lang and design a carrier best suited to provide ‘organic air’ capability for PLA Navy surface forces operating beyond the range of Chinese land-based tactical aircraft,” Eric A McVadon, Rear Admiral of the US Navy (Retired), told Asia Times Online. He adds that the while the name Shi Lang is likely aimed at intimidating Taiwan, a carrier would be neither needed nor useful in a Taiwan scenario, since China has plenty of airfields and a PLAN carrier would be easy target.
“I would like to see the US move toward greater cooperation that could lead to sea-lane protection operations with the PLA Navy. I have often suggested the goal, which we should work toward, of USN and PLAN combined operations including a moderate-capability PLAN aircraft carrier for sea-lane security (such as the anti-piracy operations off Somalia). We should ensure that we do not find ourselves having to sink Chinese carriers in a Taiwan scenario,” said McVadon.
However, other observers say the prospect of joint policing of areas like shipping lanes is unlikely, as the US Navy (USN) and PLAN are “competing for carrier presence”, particularly in the Pacific and South China Sea. The US currently operates 11 carriers.
“It would be unlikely that the USN and PLAN would both put their carrier at one specific sea lane together, except for a photo op,” says James Bussert, co-author of PLAN Combat Systems Technology 1949-2010. “Since the Chinese Navy’s main mission is control and sovereignty over South China Sea and waters within 200 miles [321 kilometers] of China, a prime goal is exclusion of our carriers, as they demonstrated when the USS Kitty Hawk tried to operate within range of Beijing after the South Korean ship [Cheonan] was sunk last March by a North Korean sub.
“PLAN and USN warships can operate together in joint exercises as in Somalia, but the Chinese carrier is not intending to compete against our carriers. They do not seek world-wide ocean responsibilities, as the USSR tried to do.”
The base needed to fulfill these responsibilities will be military facilities China is building on its southern coast, said Bussert.
“Large shelters, hardened ammunition depots and base support infrastructure being built for the last several years near Sanya on southern Hainan Island, will support Chinese aircraft carriers for South China Sea and Indian Ocean operations. Associated battle support group ships will also be based there. The Varyag will be mainly a training platform for crew and pilots of the following new construction carriers,” said Bussert.
The 302-meter long carrier, which boasts 10-barreled Gatling gun Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) in comparison to the US Navy’s six-barreled Phalanx CIWS guns, and an estimated 12 J-15 “Flying Shark” carrier-based fighters, dwarfs the French navy’s flagship Charles de Gaulle (261 meters) and the British Invincible-class aircraft carriers (209 meters).
However, there are fears that her “power plants” or turbine engines could run a high risk of malfunction – or fail to achieve a high enough speed to make the vessel useful in naval combat. The turbines that China reportedly purchased from the Ukraine have suffered repeated mechanical failures in the Varyag’s sister vessel, the Admiral Kuznetsov.
“Leaving aside her modest size compared to American carriers, her incomplete air wing and escort force and the fact that she’ll sail without the company of allied flattops, Shi Lang could be even less of a threat than her striking appearance implies. Shi Lang’s greatest potential weakness could be under her skin, in her Ukrainian-supplied engines, ” Wired magazine wrote on June 1.
The Ukrainian DN-80 gas turbine engines supplied to China each have an output power of 24,300 horse power, but it remains to be seen if they will produce enough power to reach the 30-knot standard for American aircraft carriers and escort ships, since the Varyag had an estimated full ship load of 58,600-67,500 tons.
Despite doubts over the Chinese carrier’s construction and usefulness in a conflict with Taiwan, Taipei has wasted no time in responding to the ship’s launch, swiftly unveiling its own “carrier killer” missile.
The Taiwanese military on Wednesday displayed a poster of a model Hsiung Feng (“Brave Wind”) III (HF-3) anti-ship missile with its backdrop a large burning aircraft carrier with a similar sloping “ski jump” runway to the Chinese carrier. While next to the burning carrier were the Chinese characters for “carrier killer”, the Taipei Times reported that its 120-kilogram payload would be unlikely to sink an aircraft carrier.