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China's carrier: 'A highly vulnerable extravagance'

Defense analyst Daniel Goure doesn't buy the storyline that China's aircraft carrier, said to be getting ready to sail for sea trials, spells doom and irrelevance for American power in the Pacific. Instead, he writes, it's a huge vanity project, a kind of national sports car of questionable practicality and potentially high vulnerability . There's a precedent for this, Goure argues -- the Soviet Navy, of which China's carrier Shi Lang was originally supposed to be a part:

It appears that the [People's Liberation Army] did not just buy an ex-Soviet era aircraft carrier but, more significantly, it has bought into a Soviet era vision of a rising world power requiring a blue water Navy. In the process, the Soviet Union wasted enormous resources creating naval forces that were virtually irrelevant both politically and militarily. China, like the Soviet Union/Russia, is a continental power. Even with a growing economy Beijing will not have the resources to build both effective land and air force and a blue water navy.

Moreover, deploying an aircraft carrier even with a complement of strike aircraft is not the same thing as having an operationally effective carrier strike group. The PLA Navy will have to develop the capability to provide 360 degree air and missile defense, fleet ASW, underway replenishment and air/sea coordination. Where is the Chinese navy’s equivalent of the Aegis air/missile defense system, E-2D airborne surveillance and C2 or the Los Angeles class SSN?

The reality is that the U.S. Navy should welcome the Chinese effort to create its own blue water navy. The U.S. Navy has a seventy year history of being able to engage and destroy hostile surface fleets. The name Shi Lang could also be translated as “big fat target.”

This is a bit of revisionist history -- if  we were  to jump in the time machine and go back to say, 1984, you might be hard pressed to find a U.S. naval officer who'd brush off the Soviet fleet as "irrelevant." And you could make the case that Goure is missing the point: The Shi Lang and its potential siblings aren't being built to fight the U.S. Navy, at least not yet. They're being built to project power among China's weaker neighbors in the Western Pacific, just as American carrier strike groups have spent most of modern naval history intimidating or attacking weaker militaries around the world.

As we've written before, Adm. Hyman Rickover himself admitted that his nuclear-powered aircraft carriers would only last "about two days" in a full-scale war with the Soviets, whose admirals probably could give the flattops' exact locations in their sleep. (Much as American commanders always will have a very good idea about the whereabouts of the Shi Lang, if they don't already.) But carriers have continued to serve around the world because they're so useful for so many other jobs besides full-scale war, and that kind of gunboat versatility is precisely what China wants.

What do you think?

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