The performance and capabilities of Liaoning, China’s new aircraft carrier, is being watched and debated in countries all over the West Pacific and further. What effect is it going to have on the balance of power? Is it a response and a challenge to the US Navy’s continued carrier presence in Japan and the Western Pacific? Can the U.S. or her allies afford to challenge China’s burgeoning hegemony in the Western Pacific?
First, we need to gain a little perspective of China’s aircraft carrier. China bought the hulk of the Varyag from Russia in 2003 and towed it to China. When purchased, she was only 70% complete and had never been on active service. China rebuilt and modified the Liaoning to carry Shinyang J-15 multirole fighters. Liaoning can carry 36 fixed wing aircraft, a third of what any American carrier can carry. But, that doesn’t tell the entire story.
The classification of what constitutes an aircraft carrier has been in the news lately, and by relaxing the rules slightly, it becomes a lot clearer that Liaoning moves from a tactical asset to a strategic asset. Much like the German High Sea Fleet prior and during World War I, China’s carrier and her escorts has a lot more value as a “fleet in being,” than as an actual fighting force.
Liaoning, originally built for the Soviet Union in 1988, is 25 years old. The Chinese are now learning how to use and maintain aircraft carriers; other countries in the region already have experience with and have built or are building aircraft carriers that will be comparable to the Liaoning in capabilities, if not in size. Australia and Japan, currently building carriers, have an extensive history with using them. China even bought one of Australia’s older carriers in 1985, supposedly for scrapping; the Chinese government took a great deal of time doing so. It is commonly accepted that they used the time to study the ship in preparation of buying or building their own.
Although all of the following ships are primarily helicopter carriers, they can all handle the current generation of V/STOL carrier planes. Without the inclusion of the US Navy aircraft carriers, the number of current and building aircraft carriers in the West Pacific:
- Japan (2 Huyga +1 Izumo-building): The new destroyers being built by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force are destroyers in name only. They are quite capable of launching and landing the F-35A Lightning II, 42 of which have been ordered.
- South Korea (1+2 Dokda-class): Although the Dokda and her sisters are designed for amphibious support and helicopter operations, they are capable of supporting the F-35 of which South Korea has ordered 40.
- Thailand (1 Principe de Asturias-class): The Chakri Naruebet was designed to handle the first generation Harrier Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) fighters, she is currently used as a conventional helicopter carrier by Thailand, and there are no current plans to base fixed wing aircraft on her.
- Australia (1+1 Canberra-class): The Canberra-class amphibious ships are not currently planned on carrying fixed wing aircraft although it is possible on a ship with their capabilities.
None of this shows the influence of the US Navy in the West Pacific, of course. One of America’s nuclear-powered carriers is the equal of any navy’s current total carrier capabilities in the area. The amphibious assault ships of the Wasp or America-class are the equal of any other nation’s aircraft carriers.
As an asset to further China’s foreign policy beyond where they could with land-based aircraft, Liaoning is invaluable. To station her near the Philippines or Vietnam and exert control of the sea and deny it to those countries is her most valuable use. In conflict with another country’s naval forces, especially if they have capabilities that are equal or greater than her own, will throw away any advantage China has.
As long as Liaoning exists, she will exert undue influence for sea denial in and around the area, but if there was conflict in the area, her survival is by no means assured, and to use her as a tactical asset would actually be counter-productive. Her loss would push China into an inferior position with other seafaring nations in the area and that would not be in China’s best interests.