Chinese Aircraft Carriers and Sea-forts: Challenging the U.S. in the Pacific

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South China Sea Special Report | Maurice Xia Lin


The Brief:

  • Beijing will deploy its first aircraft carrier into the South China Sea
  • China plans on building a fleet of domestically developed aircraft carriers to challenge U.S. dominance, though lags well behind in technical sophistication
  • China has fortified its illegally annexed islands across the South China Sea with anti-aircraft batteries and defences.

Turbulent water ahead

The election of Donald Trump as U.S. President has precipitated what will be a challenging year for America’s foreign relations. During the bruising election period, Mr. Trump’s repeated rhetoric of the challenge that China presents both economic and militarily has earned him no friends in Beijing. The stage seems set for the Asian giant to capitalize on American instability and fractured leadership, as it continues to flex its muscle in an area it views as its own back-yard.

As President Obama wraps up his final term in office, the Chinese have dug-in on their claims to the South China Sea. An unpredictable new President with a more aggressive nature has accelerated Chinese military construction across the region as they seek to solidify their annexation of resource rich island chains. This comes in contravention to the ruling in July by the Hague which found that found the Chinese occupation of the coral reefs as having “no legal basis”. It also specifically rejected China’s assertion of its “historical right” to the vital waterway through a so-called nine-dash line demarcated on Chinese maps, an assertion we’ve covered in-depth previously.

The most recent test of American resolve came after Chinese naval forces; the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN),  seized an unmanned U.S. Navy drone in the disputed waters. This has sparked concerns as to what the next provocation may be and how the new Commander-in-Chief would react.


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China’s new aircraft carrier the Liaoning has been causing a stir.

Chinese “paper tiger” carriers

A key challenge for U.S. strategic planners this year will be the increasing capability of the Chinese Navy, the PLAN. Over the past 12 months the PLAN has been flexing its muscle with the deployment of its first Aircraft Carrier. The Liaoning represents a huge investment of resources as China seeks to bolster its blue-water navy, and as its first aircraft carrier, represents a key jump in capabilities. By reinforcing the South China Sea with the aircraft carrier, the PLAN will have a mobile platform to scramble fighter-jets which will augment their ability to defend their annexed territory.

Numerically, the Liaoning is still vastly outnumbered by the six aircraft carriers that compose the U.S. Pacific fleets. This is set to change however as the Liaoning has been backwards engineered. Originally the former Soviet carrier known as the Varyag, the vessel has been extensively studied by Chinese engineers. It is being used as both a training vessel and for the development of its own indigenous fleet of aircraft carriers. There are at least two known carriers under construction, and they are being jointly developed alongside China’s answer to the U.S. F-35 multi-role strike-fighter, the J-15 “sea shark”.


This report is part of our ongoing coverage on the South China Sea, one of the most volatile flash-points in the globe. Seven countries are directly involved in territorial disputes that have forced a stand-off between the United States and its allies with China.

More stories are available on our dedicated coverage page here


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The Chinese J-15 “sea-shark” naval strike fighter launches from the deck of the Liaoning during fleet trials.

Playing catch-up

There a number of disadvantages that China’s carriers currently hold compared to the U.S. Navy that they will need to over-come before they are truly a threat. Firstly, whilst the PLAN is known to be working hard on developing steam and electronic catapults like those employed on US carriers, the Liaoning and the current carriers in development instead use a system that is called Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR). This technology, developed by the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy, uses a simplified and cheaper version of the catapult as well as an angled ski-lift to launch aircraft. Crucially, its limitations mean that China is unable to launch larger combat and support aircraft.

Whilst domestically developed fighter such as the J-15 “Sea Shark” naval strike fighter may perform better aerodynamically than their U.S. counterparts, they lag far behind in terms of electronic sophistication, especially in terms of electronic warfare.  Thanks to the ski-jump design, the carrier launched fighters and bombers have severe limitations on the payload and fuel that they can carry, meaning that if they were scrambled to face a U.S. incursion, they’d be limited in what weapons they can bring to the fight and how long they can stay there.

The U.S. Department of Defense’ own assessment of the Chinese carrier strike-group initiative is critical of its fledgling abilities. The Liaoning and its air wing in their current configuration are incapable of projecting power over great distances – even if it were fully operational. The ship is too small and is best suited for providing fleet air-defense extending air cover over a fleet operating far from shore. Whilst this may suit China for the moment, it severely limits its abilities to strike offensively at the U.S. fleet should it desire to.


Gunboat Diplomacy on the South China Sea

The South China Sea: A rising dragon


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“China is the first to have discovered, named, and explored and exploited [the South China Sea islands] and relevant waters, and the first to have exercised sovereignty and jurisdiction over them continuously, peacefully and effectively, thus establishing territorial sovereignty and relevant rights and interests in the South China Sea.”

– The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s response to the Hague’s findings.

Building sand castles

China has drastically increased the defenses of its new bases in the Pacific. The Asia Maritime Transparency Institute, an independent body that monitors the South China Sea via satellite imagery, has documented the buildup of defensive systems.

“The Nansha islands [China’s name for the Spratly islands] are China’s inherent territory. China’s building of facilities and necessary territorial defensive facilities on its own territory is completely normal” 

– Geng Shuang, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman

The PLAN has constructed anti-aircraft emplacements and Close-in Weapons Systems (CIWS) capable of shooting down combat air-craft as well as cruise missiles at each of their outposts across the South China Sea. They’ve also created hexagon-shaped fortifications, and installed radar stations alongside their new airbases, all of which would make military action against their installations a costly endeavor.

The defenses are part of the Chinese military’s Air-Defense-Identification-Zone (ADIZ) strategy. This is where through a combination of aircraft and naval vessels, China forcefully projects an effective military bubble of control over who can enter that air and naval space.

The problem for U.S. strategic planners now is that since the tools for Chinese defense of their claims are now in place, there is very little that can be done to remove the PLAN short of a military confrontation.


As a conflict-zone, the South China Sea remains a powder-keg. With Mr. Trump at the wheel, politicians and pundits are understandably tetchy when it comes to what he may or may not do.

Hopefully, the area remains a space for sabre-rattling and bluster. But if 2016 is anything to go by, 2017 may be a year for surprises yet.


 

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