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China’s Carrier Program: More Show Than Go

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China’s aircraft carriers have been attracting international attention in recent years as China modernizes its military. The Shandong, one of two active aircraft carriers in China, was sailed east of Taiwan last month during military drills surrounding the island. Although the act of deploying the carrier could be seen as a show of force, China’s carrier program is still in its infancy, with many challenges to overcome before it can pose a credible threat far from its shores.

According to a group of military attaches and defense analysts familiar with regional naval deployments, it could be more than a decade before China can mount a credible carrier threat. Instead, China’s carriers are seen as more of a propaganda showpiece. Doubts have been raised about their value in a possible conflict with the US over Taiwan and whether China could protect them on longer-range missions into the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Experts suggest that while some regional press coverage portrayed recent drills around Taiwan as active patrols and a military challenge to the US and its allies, the Chinese carriers are effectively still in training mode. Landing of aircraft at night and in bad weather, for instance, which is crucial to regular offshore carrier operations, remains far from routine. Moreover, in a conflict, China’s carriers would be vulnerable to missile and submarine attacks as the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has not perfected protective screening operations, particularly anti-submarine warfare.

“Unlike other parts of their military modernization, there is something politically theatrical about their carrier deployments so far,” said Trevor Hollingsbee, a former British naval intelligence analyst. “Carrier operations are a very complicated game, and China’s got to figure this out all by itself. It still has a long, long way to go.”

Some experts revealed that at times, China’s carrier pilots have relied on land-based airfields for takeoffs or landings, as well as for extra air cover and surveillance. Although China’s Liaoning and Shandong carriers have each sailed into the western Pacific in recent months, approaching US bases on Guam, they remained within range of coastal Chinese airfields, according to experts.

Both the Liaoning and the Chinese-built Shandong have jump ramps for take-offs, which limit the number and range of aircraft on board. Anti-submarine helicopters operate from both carriers and China’s Type 055 cruisers, but the carriers have yet to deploy an early warning aircraft, relying so far on land-based planes.

A new plane, the KJ-600, designed to perform a similar role to the E-2C/D Hawkeye launched from US carriers, is still in testing, according to the Pentagon’s latest annual report on China’s military.

As the Liaoning and Shandong gradually increase the tempo of their drills, China is preparing for sea trials of its next-generation carrier, the 80,000-tonne Fujian, which is significantly larger, though conventionally powered, and will launch aircraft from electromagnetic catapults. The ship, which the Pentagon report said could be operational by 2024, is expected to carry new variants of the J-15 jet fighter, replacing the existing model that foreign analysts consider underpowered.

The carrier program reflects the ruling Communist Party’s aim of making the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a “world class” military by 2049, part of President Xi Jinping’s vision of building “a great modern socialist country.” However, China still has a long way to go before its carrier program can pose a credible threat to other naval powers.

One indication of China’s ambitions will be if carriers built after the Fujian are nuclear-powered like US ones, allowing global range. A study published in December by the non-partisan US Congressional Research Service noted that China would use its carriers to project power “particularly in scenarios that do not involve opposing US forces.”

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