Tuesday 20 Oct 2020 | 16:43 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 20 Oct 2020 | 16:43 | SYDNEY

China aircraft carrier mystery (part 2)


Raoul Heinrichs

27 May 2011 09:48

Having spent much of the past two decades seeking to exploit the limitations of aircraft carriers, why has China embarked on its own carrier program?

The first and arguably least likely reason is that it represents the first step in an effort to challenge the US for sea control on the open ocean. That would mean not simply settling for the ability to deny US forces access to the Western Pacific, but also seeking to circumvent the denial capabilities of the US and other Indo-Pacific powers, thereby enabling China to monopolise the use of the sea. This would in turn allow China to project air and land power with relative impunity, just as the US has done for much of the 20th century.

Given the many benefits that sea control has accrued to the US, it is not inconceivable that China might aspire to a similarly ambitious maritime policy. But China's geographic vulnerabilities, together with the proliferation of denial capabilities in the hands of its rivals, seems to render this option virtually untenable at any realistic level of expenditure, at least for the foreseeable future.

In particular, China's long continental frontiers, nuclear-armed neighbours and restive provinces necessitate the preservation of massive land forces, which constrain Beijing's ability to disproportionately concentrate its investment on sea power. Militarily, a sea-control doctrine would concede to China's rivals – India in the Indian Ocean, Japan in the Pacific and the US in both — all the asymmetric advantages that China has itself worked so hard in recent years to attain.

Finally, the acquisition of aircraft carriers requires a range of enabling capabilities that the PLA has yet to develop, and which may still be beyond reach, particularly in anti-submarine warfare, a minimum requirement for carrier operations in a contested environment.

I'll explore two other possible motivations in the last of this three-part series.

Photo by Flickr user Defence Images.