Relax: China’s First Aircraft Carrier is a Piece of Junk
- By David Axe
- June 1, 2011 |
Her new guns are installed. Her light-gray paint job has dried. Her airplanes are flying and her engines are turning. Thirteen years after she was purchased from Ukraine half-complete and lacking engines, the Chinese navy’s very first aircraft carrier is ready to set sail from Dalian shipyard in northeast China. The former Soviet carrier Varyag, renamed Shi Lang in Chinese service, could begin sea trials this summer.
Just how worried should the world be?
The answer depends on who you ask. To China’s closest neighbors, the prospect of a carrier speeding heavily-armed Chinese jet fighters across the world’s oceans is an alarming one. But the U.S. Navy, the world’s leading carrier power and arguably the Chinese navy’s biggest rival, seems oddly unaffected.
There are good reasons for the Pentagon’s calm. For starters, Shi Lang, pictured above, could be strictly a training carrier, meant to pave the way for bigger, more capable carriers years or decades in the future.
But even if she is meant for combat, there’s probably little reason to fear Shi Lang. A close study of the 990-foot-long vessel — plus the warships and airplanes she’ll sail with — reveals a modestly-sized carrier lacking many of the elements that make U.S. flattops so powerful.
When Shi Lang finally gets underway in coming months, she will boost the ability of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to patrol airspace over contested sea zones, provided they’re not too far from the Chinese mainland. And more to the point, she’ll look good doing it. “I think the change in perception by the region will be significant,” Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific forces, told the Senate in April.
Willard said he is “not concerned” about the ship’s military impact.
Shi Lang will sail into a Pacific Ocean teeming with carriers. First, there are the American carriers: five nuclear-powered supercarriers home-ported in California, Washington and Japan, plus six assault ships in California and Japan. Between them, the American carriers displace no less than 700,000 tons and can carry 600 aircraft. “Our Navy can carry twice as many aircraft at sea as all the rest of the world combined,” outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed out last year.
(In comparison, the Chinese flattop displaces just 60,000 tons and carries no more than 40 planes and choppers.)
Japan’s got two 18,000-ton assault ships, plus another on the way. Today they carry just a few helicopters, but it’s possible the ships will eventually embark vertical-landing F-35B stealth fighters. The same applies to South Korea’s four planned 14,000-ton carriers and the two 30,000-ton Australian flattops still under construction.
Thailand’s 12,000-ton Chari Naruebet is an outlier: too small for more than a handful of aircraft, but nevertheless capable of carrying the country’s ancient, vertical-landing Harrier jets.
India and Russia both operate full-fledged carriers with jet fighters aboard. Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov is actually Shi Lang’s older sister. Her dozen Su-33 fighters are just rustier versions of the Chinese J-15. Lately, Kuznetsov has spent most of her time in the Mediterranean. India’s 30,000-ton Viraat and her 30 Harriers and choppers tend to stick to the Indian Ocean.
Of the 22 flattops already plying the Pacific or coming soon, none belongs to a country that China can consider a close ally. Today it’s not uncommon to see American carriers sailing in mixed formations with carriers from Japan, South Korea, Thailand and India. Beijing can only dream of assembling that kind of international sea power, with or without Shi Lang.
A carrier is only as potent as her air wing, a fact the Pentagon appreciates. That’s why the U.S. Navy spends an average of $15 billion a year on new airplanes — about the same as the Air Force. Today, a Navy supercarrier sails with a 70-strong air wing. F/A-18 fighters, EA-6B or EA-18G radar-jamming planes, E-2 radar planes, C-2 cargo-haulers and H-60 helicopters are all part of the mix. The aircraft work as a team, patrolling, tracking and attacking targets below, on and above the surface and moving people and supplies to and from the carrier.
Shi Lang will not possess anything close to that mix of aircraft and capabilities. China’s J-15 naval fighter, pictured above, is a rough analogue of the F-18, but with a shorter range, less sophisticated sensors and fewer weapons options. The Ka-28 helicopter hunts submarines like the H-60 does.
But that’s it. The PLAN doesn’t have radar-jamming jets, carrier-based airlifters or fixed-wing radar planes. Rumors of a Chinese copy of the E-2 seem unfounded, for an E-2 would require a steam-powered catapult to boost it into the air, and Shi Lang lacks even that basic equipment. To fill that huge gap in Shi Lang’s air wing, China is testing a Z-8 helicopter fitted with a radar. But such a set-up offers only a fraction of the E-2’s range and endurance.
The disparity will only increase in the next decade, as the U.S. Navy finally deploys jet-powered killer drones, early versions of which are already undergoing testing in the California desert.
The same limitations apply to Shi Lang’s escorts.
To protect its $10 billion carriers and their air wings from aerial attack, the U.S. Navy assigns several of its 83 destroyers and cruisers to sail alongside each flattop. The escorting warships boast super-sophisticated Aegis radars and carry 100 or more Surface-to-Air Missiles per ship. An American carrier battle group possesses more high-powered radars and at-sea missiles than most other countries’ entire naval fleets.
The Chinese navy has just two destroyers that come close to matching America’s Aegis warships, although more are under construction. The Type 052C destroyer, pictured above, carries half as many missiles as a U.S. destroyer, and its radar is unlikely to match the Aegis’ ability to closely track scores of targets simultaneously. On the surface, Shi Lang will be all but defenseless, by U.S. standards.
Underwater, the situation is even worse. American carriers travel with an unseen companion: at least one nuclear-powered attack submarine. The sub’s job is to patrol ahead of the carrier, screening for hostile warships — especially other submarines. After all, submarines are the world’s most lethal ship-killers.
The PLAN has two Type 093 submarines capable of long-range patrols. Again, that’s too few for carrier-escort duty in addition to the other missions likely assigned to the Chinese attack-submarine force. But the bigger problem is communications. To coordinate surface ships and submarines, the Americans and other advanced navies rely on a mix of Very Low Frequency radios installed aboard special aircraft, plus higher-frequency radios for talking from ship to sub.
China hasn’t perfected that system. “Due to the limitations of submarine communications technology, the PLAN currently can only exercise relatively limited tactical control over its submarines,” Garth Heckler, Ed Francis and James Mulvenon wrote in the 2007 book China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force.
For that reason, Shi Lang probably cannot rely on Chinese submarines for protection from other submarines. That realization evoked a rather pointed comment from National War College professor Bernard Cole. “As a former Navy man, I’d love to see them [the Chinese] build a fleet of aircraft carriers which, increasingly, are just good sub targets,” Cole said.
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.
Powerplants — that is, jet engines for airplanes, turbines for ships — are some of the most complex, expensive and potentially troublesome components of any weapon system. Just ask the designers of the Pentagon’s F-35 stealth fighter and the U.S. Navy’s San Antonio-class amphibious ships. Both have been nearly sidelined by engine woes.
China has struggled for years to design and build adequate powerplants for its ships and aircraft. Although Chinese aerospace firms are increasingly adept at manufacturing airframes, they still have not mastered motors. That’s why the new WZ-10 attack helicopter was delayed nearly a decade, and why there appear to be two different prototypes for the J-20 stealth fighter. One flies with reliable Russian-made AL-31F engines; the other apparently uses a less trustworthy Chinese design, the WS-10A.
For Shi Lang, China reportedly purchased turbines from Ukraine. Though surely superior to any ship engines China could have produced on its own, the Ukrainian models might still be unreliable by Western standards. Russia’s Kuznetsov, also fitted with Ukrainian turbines, has long suffered propulsion problems that have forced her to spend most of her 30-year career tied to a pier for maintenance. When she does sail, a large tugboat usually tags along, just in case the carrier breaks down.
If Shi Lang is anything like her sister, she could turn out to be a naval version of the mythical “Potemkin village” — an impressive facade over a rickety interior.
“As China’s interests expand globally, the Chinese navy needs to go further outbound, and an aircraft carrier is needed,” said Arthur Ding, from National Chengchi University in Taiwan. If so, China might have to wait for the carrier after the potentially hollow Shi Lang.
Photos: PLAN, Chinese Internet, U.S. Navy
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