By Taylor Marvin
This piece was originally posted at PROSPECT Blog.
Yesterday China began sea trials of it first aircraft carrier, which began its life as the Soviet ship Varyag before being bought and extensively refitted by the Chinese over the last decade. Via Defense Tech, the Wall Street Journal is apprehensive about this new demonstration of Chinese naval power:
“It is the most potent symbol yet of China’s long-term desire to develop the power both to deny U.S. naval access to Asian waters and to protect its global economic interests, including shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and oil sources in the Middle East.
Its launch is thus seen as a milestone in relations between an ascendant China, bent on reclaiming its historical role as a global power, and a debt-ridden U.S. that wants to retain the military supremacy it has wielded in Asia since 1945.”
However, there is good reason to doubt how significant this event really is. In The Guardian, Asian military expert Ian Storey argues that the launch of the ex-Varyag, which has been possibly renamed the Shi Lang, signals the start of a shift towards Chinese supremacy in the western Pacific, though he is careful to emphasize that the actual tipping point toward Chinese control is far away:
“By itself, the ship does not erode the credibility of America’s military presence in the region nor greatly increase China’s power projection capabilities. Nevertheless, the vessel is a potent symbol of China’s aspirations to become a global maritime power and is yet another indication that the military balance of power is gradually shifting in China’s favour.”
Matt Yglesias makes a similar point about just how difficult it is to actually operate carriers:
“The basic issue here is that the learning curve at the initial stages of carrier operation is extremely steep. Not only is it difficult and expensive to build a working aircraft carrier, but if you don’t already have a fleet of working aircraft carriers, you don’t have pilots and flight crews who can reliably operate it. And if you don’t have pilots and flight crews, you don’t have experienced people who can train new pilots and flight crews. What’s more, the United States got to go through this bootstrapping phase decades ago when ships and planes were simpler. Then we had a solid foundation of human capital to go through the process of building more advanced hardware. But if you want militarily useful equipment for the 21st century, your human capital gap is much bigger than any that we ever faced.”
However, the deficiencies of the ex-Varyag are deeper than the PLAN’s lack of experience operating carriers. The ex-Varyag is based on the Soviet Admiral Kuznetsov-class carrier design, which was originally built for a different mission than American carriers and is much less capable than its US counterparts. The ex-Varyag has inherited the Admiral Kuznetsov-class’ deficiencies, limitations the Wall Street Journal almost entirely glosses over. The Wall Street Journal’s presentation of the ex-Varyag as a much more capable design than it actually is is reinforced by its accompanying graphic, which makes the ship appear almost as large as a modern Nimitz-class supercarrier:
This presentation is strictly factual: the ex-Varyag is almost as long as the US Nimitz-class. However, size does not necessarily equal operational effectiveness, and the capabilities of the ex-Varyag and the Soviet Admiral Kuznetsov-class it is based on are much less than a modern US supercarrier. The roots of these deficiencies lie in the Soviet Navy’s long struggle to acquire carriers and the compromises it made to finally acquire them, compromises the ex-Varyag inherited.
The Admiral Kuznetsov-class was born from compromise — while the Soviet Navy had desired large, American-style carriers since the 1950s, the funding to construct them never appeared, despite the USSR’s enormously high levels of military spending. There were several reasons for Soviet admirals’ continuing disappointment: the Soviet Navy had historically taken a backseat to the Red Army, and due to limited funding the Navy had made a conscious decision to focus on their submarine rather than surface fleet. In many ways, this was a rational decision. Unlike the United States, the Soviet Union had no pressing need for naval capabilities: because a conventional war between the USSR and Western democracies was likely to take place in Europe, the Soviets did not need the extensive navy required to transport thousands of troops across the Atlantic. Without the same core mission as its American counterpart, the Soviet Navy never enjoyed the political clout the US Navy did. Because the Soviets would not strictly require a blue water navy in a conventional European war, there was little reason to mount an expensive effort to achieve parity with Western surface fleets. Instead, the Soviets focused on fielding advanced submarines and cruise missile systems to defeat Western navies, and there was not much room for expensive carriers in Soviet naval strategy. This led to the emergence of a Soviet navy very different from America’s: the Red Navy was more focused on submarine warfare and was more integrated with land-based aircraft armed with very long range cruise missiles than its American counterpart, and unlike the US Navy had little surface presence outside of local Russian waters. This was reflected in the organization of Soviet surface fleet — unlike in the US Navy, late-period Soviet flagships were not aircraft carriers but instead unique nuclear powered guided missile cruisers.
However, Soviet admirals repeatedly pressed for aircraft carriers similar to those of their US adversaries, partially for military reasons, but also to defend their institutional pride. For the most part, they were unsuccessful — Soviet politicians were not willing to fund expensive carriers they saw as peripheral to Soviet security aims. However, in the late 1960s the Soviet Navy was able to acquire small Moskva-class helicopter carriers that were optimized for anti-submarine warfare and, reflecting Soviet naval doctrine, relied on anti-ship missiles for self-defense. Even calling the Moskvas helicopter carriers is a bit misleading — unlike modern flat decked US or UK helicopter carriers Moskva-class ships resembled a small cruiser with a small deck covering the back half of the ship. While these ships were incapable of launching fixed wing aircraft, they did allow the Soviet Navy to begin acquiring experience in naval flight operations.
The clear limitations of the Moskva-class led Soviet admirals to continue pushing for larger, more capable carriers. When naval lobbying for an American-style nuclear powered supercarrier failed, the Soviet Navy decided to settle for an intermediate design between the Moskva-class helicopter carriers they were familiar with full-scale aircraft carrier they desired. The result of this compromise was the Kiev-class.
The compromises involved in the Kiev-class’ development were immediately apparent — the ships resembled a conventional cruiser with a small aviation deck, which due to its restricted size was only capable of launching a small number of specialized vertical take off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. The Kiev-class was generally a failure. The ambitious Yak-38 VTOL aircraft design intended to fly off Kiev-class carriers was plagued by developmental problems, offered middling performance, and was never produced in large quantities. Even outside of the failure of the Yak-38, the core mission of the Kiev-class was never fully defined: its small deck and reliance on short-range VTOL aircraft meant that its air wings were only suitable for reconnaissance and interception missions, and it was not clear of the class’ mix of the missile cruiser and carrier role would be competitive with more focused US designs. Despite the failings of the Kiev-class, they did give the Soviet Navy its first experience operating fixed wing aircraft off of ships.
This experience proved valuable. Despite the chronic political opposition to aircraft carriers from Soviet higher ups, the Red Navy was able to secure funding for a much more ambition successor to the Kiev-class. These new Admiral Kuznetsov-class carriers were designed from the outset to support conventional Soviet Air Force fighter aircraft, which were much more capable than the poorly-performing Yak-38s the smaller Kievs were dependent on. Unlike the Kievs‘ half-deck Admiral Kuznetsov-class ships featured a full deck that covert the entire ship’s upper surface, similar to its American counterparts, and could launch formidable Soviet aircraft. However, despite their size the Admiral Kuznetsovs were much less capable than American supercarriers. Unlike American carriers, the Admiral Kuznetsov-class did not feature a powerful catapult to launch heavily-laden aircraft, instead relying on a ski jump-like ramp at the ship’s bow to boost aircraft into the air. Similarly, the Admiral Kuznetsovs were not nuclear powered, giving them less range and endurance than American carriers, and carried less aircraft. These deficiencies were partially driven by cost constraints, and by Soviet naval doctrine: unlike American carriers, which were the centerpiece of the US Navy and whose core mission was to project power across the globe, the Admiral Kuznetsovs were intended to support the rest of the Soviet fleet, rather than the other way around. While the core weapon of the US Navy is aircraft launched by carriers, the core mission of the Soviet fleet was to destroy Western shipping with submarines and missile cruisers that the Admiral Kuznetsovs defended. Soviet terminology supported this distinction — instead of referring to the Admiral Kuznetsovs as ‘aircraft carriers’, the Red Navy officially titled them ‘aircraft-carrying cruisers’. While the effectiveness of Soviet carrier doctrine is debatable, it meant that the Admiral Kuznetsov design was much less capable or flexible than American supercarriers.
The Admiral Kuznetsov had the misfortune to be launched in 1985 and commissioned in 1991, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. While the Admiral Kuznetzov entered service in the Russian Navy, the only other Admiral Kuznetsov-class ship built, the Varyag, was not completed and sat unfinished in Ukraine for a decade before being sold to the Chinese. While the ex-Varyag has been extensively refitted by the PLAN, it still inherits the deficiencies of the Admiral Kuznetsov-class, and entirely lacks the power projection capabilities of modern US carriers. Given these deficiencies and the PLAN’s lack of experience operating aircraft carriers, it is unlikely that the ex-Varyag will ever be used operationally. It’s much more likely that it will be used exclusively as for training purposes, which despite its limitations is an achievement sure to be heavily leveraged for domestic consumption within China. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the launch of the ex-Varyag isn’t significant — China has spent nearly a decade refurbishing the ship, and the technical and operation experience gained from operating the ship is fundamentally important to the success of China future, more capable indigenous carriers. But the alarm trumpeted in the Wall Street Journal is unwarranted. It’s also not clear how dangerous of a development the emergence of a Chinese carrier actually is. Chinese officials have often pointed out that their country is the only with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council to not field a carrier, and it’s hard to argue that they aren’t entitled to one.
Matt Yglesias is right to note that the Chinese Navy will face a long and difficult process building the technical experience and human capital necessary to operate its own carrier fleet. The Soviet experience acquiring carriers supports this assertion — the Soviet Navy’s progression from helicopter carriers to a fully developed carrier capable of supporting conventional fixed wing aircraft was a thirty year process. Of course, in the coming decades China will be able to devote significantly greater resources to its naval modernization than the Soviets ever were. However, the USSR also was a global superpower that spent a much higher percentage of GDP on its military than China does today (in the mid-1980s the USSR was spending at least $300 billion a year on defense, compared to China’s roughly $120 billion today), and the Soviet Navy enjoyed a much more developed naval heritage than the modern PLAN. It will not take China three decades to field its own indigenous carrier, but it will not be a fast process.
The Chinese military leadership seems to be aware of these difficulties. China has been careful to play down the significance of the ex-Varyag’s launch, stating that “there should be no excessive worries or paranoid feelings on China’s pursuit of an aircraft carrier, as it will not pose a threat to other countries.” This reassurance is partially to avoid antagonizing China’s neighbors, but is also likely to avoid the expectation in China that the ex-Varyag will immediately become an operational carrier. Similar, other ongoing Chinese weapons development programs seem to indicate that the Chinese military leadership does not see the ex-Varyag as a combat asset, and judges the introduction of truly operation carriers to be decades off. The J-20 program, China’s efforts to develop a modern 5th generation stealth fighter aircraft, is a good example of this. As I’ve argued before, the design of the J-20 — specifically, the differences between it and American and European advanced fighter designs — seems to indicate that it was designed for a different mission than Western designs. While the US F-22 was designed purely for the air superiority mission — to destroy enemy fighter aircraft — and the F-35 as a versatile multirole fighter designed to serve in the Air Force, Navy, and Marines the J-20’s large size, likely high internal fuel volume and selective stealthing seem to indicate that it is at least partially optimized for the long-range maritime strike mission, capable of attacking hostile ships beyond China’s ‘first island chain’. The fact that the Chinese military bureaucracy is investing in a prototype of what is potentially a long-range land-based maritime strike aircraft — a role that the US hasn’t pursued for decades — seems to indicate that they view an operational carrier as far off, because an operational aircraft carrier would at least partially negate the land-based maritime strike mission. Of course, this is almost entirely speculation. There are numerous other possible explanations for the J-20’s unconventional design: doubts of the survivability of carriers in a full-scale conflict, inter-division rivalries in the PLA, desire for multiple assets for the sea access denial mission, or a misreading of the J-20s intended mission. However, the fact that China is willing to invest in an expensive program that seems at least partially optimized for the land-based anti-shipping role seems to suggest that the Chinese military leadership is not yet willing to put very many eggs in the carrier basket.
All these factors — the ex-Varyag’s roots in the Admiral Kuznetsov-class, the long history of Soviet carrier development, and the enormous difficulties of building the necessary technical skill and experience for successful carrier operations — suggest that an operational Chinese carrier is at least a decade off, possibly much longer. The start of the ex-Varyag’s sea trials is a major step for the Chinese Navy. But it’s a first step.
Lee, Robin J. “A Brief Look at Russian Aircraft Carrier Development.”
Goebel, Greg. “Soviet Jet VTOL: Yak-36, Yak-38, & Yak-41.”
Globalsecurity.org. “Kirov Class Guided Missile Cruiser.”