Wednesday, February 4, 2015
China's road to its first aircraft carrier a strange journey
James Holmes, Foreign Policy, Feb 3
It’s an epic saga made for Hollywood: the long, strange odyssey of China’s highest-profile weapons acquisition in decades – the aircraft carrier Liaoning, née Varyag – from unfinished Soviet navy hulk purchased in 1998 to operational warship plying the Asian seas. Named after a Chinese province, China’s only aircraft carrier debuted in 2012 to great fanfare. It’s far from unusual for weapons development to take years in the making. But it’s not every day that a private citizen buys a major warship, donates it to the navy, and sees it become the pride of fleet and nation. Happy ending, right?
Not exactly. Turns out the buyer got stiffed – and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (SCMP) has the scoop. In a series of stories published in January, reporter Minnie Chan detailed how army basketball star-turned-business tycoon Xu Zengping purchased the Varyag from a shipyard in Ukraine – a process that took almost an entire decade. He did so at the behest of naval-aviation enthusiasts within the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), who wanted China to join the exclusive club of nations that operate floating airfields.
Xu claims he bid $20 million of his own money at auction, then financed the Varyag’s long voyage from the Black Sea to the South China gambling enclave of Macau. The gambit ended up costing him a total of roughly $120 million – small change for a government, but a mind-boggling sum for an individual. Xu gambled that a grateful Beijing would add the ship to the PLAN – and reimburse him for it. Beijing ultimately did accept custody of the carrier, but, Xu says, refused to pay. “I just handed it over to the navy,” Xu told Chan.
What does this tale say about China’s navy? That Beijing is a cheapskate, perhaps. But more importantly, it reaffirms three long-standing patterns in Beijing’s bid for sea power. Oh, and guess what? Now, a second aircraft carrier is reportedly in the works.
Patriot Games And Money On The Table
Nationalism suffuses China’s seaward quest. Chinese patriots take inspiration from – and in turn impel – the PLAN’s high-seas exploits. Sure, Xu took love of country to extremes, but he’s far from alone in his ardor for an oceangoing navy. Beijing has tapped an undercurrent of popular sentiment for seaborne exploits, and officials from President Xi Jinping on down prime the pump regularly to keep the public support flowing. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, exhorted China to make itself into a maritime power. Xi has gotten with Hu’s program wholeheartedly since assuming power in 2012, making speech after speech extolling the wonders of sea power. “We need to do more to take interest in the sea, understand the sea, and strategically manage the sea, and continually do more to promote China’s efforts to become a maritime power,” Xi told an audience of top Chinese officials in July 2013.
Driven by popular fervor and the generous budgets it begets, the PLAN is making itself into a serious fighting force. Chinese military spending is estimated to have reached $180 billion in 2014; the fraction allocated to the navy is unknown, but certainly substantial.
While this total represents only about a third of U.S. defense spending for that year, bear in mind that Beijing is spending that sum just to dominate the waters immediately off its shores – a minor subset of the world’s oceans and seas. Meanwhile, Washington is trying to face down China in its home waters, police the rest of the global commons, deter Russia and Iran, and fight the Islamic State and other terror groups on land. In short, it’s trying to manage events everywhere with only triple the PLA’s budget. Don’t be taken in by simple budgetary comparisons that supposedly demonstrate American supremacy by the numbers.
A Floating Weapons Laboratory
As outsiders eye China’s naval buildup, they should remember that not everything China’s navy does conforms to some master scheme bequeathed by potentates of the ruling Chinese Communist Party or by naval commanders. The PLAN has an inquisitive, innovative streak that can prompt unorthodox decisions. Commanders and engineers understand that they’re playing catchup vis-à-vis the U.S. Navy, their chief competitor. They understand they have to explore all options to level the playing field or reverse the naval balance. For the past 20 years, consequently, “fleet experimentation” has been the watchword for the navy’s rise to regional eminence.
That means using warships not just as fleet workhorses but as test beds for yet-to-be-proven machinery, concepts, and tactics. If Beijing wants to develop, say, a new guided-missile destroyer (DDG) – a vessel suitable for defending an aircraft carrier against air, surface, or subsurface attack, or for leading surface forces of its own – it commissions shipbuilders to construct a few apiece of several different DDG designs and send them to sea. Routine cruises and exercises double as field trials for the ideas and hardware that comprise fighting ships.
In other words, crews take their vessels to sea to investigate what works and what doesn’t in each design. It’s one thing to draw up blueprints for machinery in a laboratory, quite another to expose that machinery – to seawater, salt air, heavy weather – and see whether the design will stand up to the elements. Shipbuilders glean insights from fleet sailors. Naval architects cull out the worst features while incorporating the best into subsequent ship classes.
Disinformation In Plain Sight
Xu’s aircraft-carrier caper, lastly, offers a reminder that China has a penchant for surprising foreign observers with new ships, combat aircraft, and armaments. Indeed, most PLAN platforms debuting over the past decade have come as at least mild shocks to China watchers.
How does Beijing pull this off? Concealment is one method for fooling outsiders about the pace and scope of China’s naval progress. It is possible to hide a modest-sized vessel such as a DDG, frigate, or submarine during the early phases of construction. And indeed, fabricating major ship components indoors – and thus out of sight of satellites and other prying eyes – is standard fare for the PLAN.
It’s one thing to manufacture relatively compact vessels under cover. A Chinese DDG, for instance, displaces under 10,000 tons. The Liaoning displaces around 60,000 tons. Trying to refit a ship of such proportions – a behemoth public-affairs specialists commonly dub a “floating city” – while escaping notice would verge on unthinkable.
So rather than try to hide the carrier project, Beijing encouraged rumor-mongering about it. One rumor proved especially convenient. As South China Morning Post’s Chan explains, the Ukrainian shipyard sold Xu the hulk on condition that it not be put to military use. To close the deal, Xu spun a cover story assuring the sellers that the Varyag was destined for conversion into a casino in Macau – a sort of floating Las Vegas.
From the turn of the century forward, Beijing kept quiet about its plans – and China watchers in the West debated as to whether the PLAN truly meant to use an old Soviet vessel as its vehicle for breaking into the aircraft-carrier business. The prospect seemed far-fetched. And indeed, distinguished scholars disparaged its military capacity and depicted it as a symbol holding no meaningful combat value.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College.