Stone the crows! The Asian hordes that Andrew Fisher wanted a navy to protect us from are running a century late, but they’re finally on the way. [i] Well sort of, what with Japan being the worry then and China starting its first aircraft carrier’s sea trials now. [ii]
But the crows aren’t all that worried. For a start, China’s is a carrier on the cheap – a Soviet hull from the 1980s which Beijing bought from the Ukraine (without engines or armament) in 1998.[iii]
Compared to any of the US Navy’s eleven carrier battle groups, it is no great shakes. The big USN carriers have catapult assisted take-off and arrested recovery, which allows them to maintain long range and heavy payload aircraft on 24-hour operational cycles.
The Chinese carrier has a ski-jump ramp, meaning its aircraft are less capable of hitting distant targets or projecting command of the oceans.[iv] And a US carrier battle group is very hard for China’s new fleet unit to kill.
James Holloway argues the only way to disable or sink a large deck carrier is alternatively a near miss or a direct hit with a nuclear warhead – and starting a full-scale war is hardly proportionate to equalising the odds in the South China Sea. [v]
The Crows are not convinced, having read about unsinkable warships before. Still it would take a lot of torpedos to sink a Nimitz class carrier, let alone their coming replacement the 100,000 tonne Gerald Ford class.[vi] And China’s carrier will make an easier target for US nuclear submarines and carriers than the other way around.
The Yanks also have a century start in managing carriers, giving them a bit of a lead in the sea power supremacy biz.[vii] Nor is China’s carrier any use for an attack on Taiwan, basically because Taiwanese missiles would sink it in the strait between the two countries. [viii]
So why are the Chinese bothering?
For the same reason the US deploys carrier battle groups, to keep the peace and protect its interests.
In the case of the US, this is mainly about standing firm with the north Asian democracies, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. In China’s case, it will be about asserting its great power status and having the means to signal when it has the snits with regional opponents. Nothing clears a government’s mind more than a potentially hostile carried mooching around off the coast.
China also needs to demonstrate it is keeping its supply lines secure, especially for the 47 per cent of its oil that comes from the Middle East. Even though Beijing is looking to develop new sources in Africa the oil will still come have to cross the Indian Ocean and travel through the Malacca Straits. “One way or another China’s concern about its energy security pushes it towards naval expansion programs that would protect its sea lanes against anticipated threats from competitors,” Leszek Buszynski argues.[ix]
So that’s all right then – the Chinese have a legitimate reason for their one inferior carrier, which they must know would not last long in a fight with the US – meaning we are off the hook and the RAN can get back to its core business, holding inquiries into what, if any, ships are fit for sea.[x]
Not quite. For a start, commissioning one carrier means the Chinese want more. A carrier cannot be at sea all the time – and for anything other than gunboat diplomacy at least three are needed.
According to Japanese analysis, China is planning to have three carrier battle groups by mid century and the US Department of Defense says China has plans to build multiple carriers by 2020. [xi]
And as a richer China starts to build more carriers, a poorer US may decide to meet its obligations with less naval airpower. Carriers are certainly an expensive way to project power.
Most of the resources in a battle group are used to protect the core asset – of the 90 aircraft on a Nimitz class carrier only 30 or so are available for offensive operations. Franz-Stefan Gady suggests switching the strike role to nuclear submarines.[xii] And last year then US Defense Secretary Robert Gates questioned whether the US should maintain 11 carrier battle groups for another 30 years.[xiii]
Which might mean its allies, including us, have to do more, we better hope it never comes to a choice between our major ally and important customer in the Taiwan straits. If we don’t, a Chinese blue water navy not preoccupied by the USN could lean on an unprotected Australia, threatening to cut our oil imports. [xiv]
While the 2009 Defence white paper was light-on for details on why we should build, not buy, new submarines (however you cut it we can’t afford carriers) it was certainly right in calling for a fleet to face China in cooperation with the USN. [xv]
In any case, sooner or later the Yanks will suggest to Canberra that we might want to pull our weight given, as Hamish McDonald put it on Saturday, we have “the soundest budget and lowest debt level of any major Western economy.”[xvi] Especially with the Japanese, Koreans and Taiwanese all considering arming up in response to the China carrier.
It seems inconceivable that the Chinese have any plans to attack us – it’s far cheaper to keep buying our minerals and energy than to try and convince us to change our great and powerful pal. But their attitudes to our friends and allies may not be so benign, especially on the Korean peninsula.
After 60 years of leaning on the Yanks one small-ish Chinese carrier has launched an era of inevitably increased defence spending.
[iii] “Name and purpose to be determined,” The Economist, August 13
[iv] Nan Li and Christopher Weuve, “China’s aircraft carrier ambitions: an update,” Naval College War Review, 63, 1 (Winter 2010) 13-31, 20, 22
[v] James L Holloway, “If the question is China,” US Naval Institute Proceedings, 137, I, (Jan 2011) 54-57,
[vii] Associated Press, “US shows off carrier amid tensions,” The Wall Street Journal, August 14
[ix] Leszek Buszynski, “Emerging naval rivalry in East Asia and the Indian Ocean: Implications for Australia,” Security Challenges 5, 3 (Spring, 2009) 73-93, 76
[x] Cameron Stewart, “Not a single submarine seaworthy,” The Australian, June 10
[xi] Fumio Ota, “The carrier of Asia-Pacific troubles,” The Wall Street Journal, August 11, Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2010,” @ www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/2010_CMPR_Final.pdf recovered on August 22
[xii] Franz-Stefan Gady, “Aircraft carriers and Chinese missiles: Time to rethink the US naval doctrine,” Eastwest Institute, January 21 2011 @ www.ewi.info/aircraft-carriers-and-chinese-missiles-time-rethink-us-naval-doctrine recovered on August 22
[xiii] Mark Thompson, “How to save a trillion dollars,” Time, April 14
[xiv] Buszynski, op cit 91 35,36,67
[xv] Australian Government, Department of Defence, Defence white paper 2009, 35,36, 67 @ www.defence.gov.au/whitepaper/docs/defence_white_paper_2009.pdf recovered on August 22
[xvi] Hamish McDonald, “Tread carefully with China rhetoric,” Sydney Morning Herald, August 20