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China: We need at least 3 aircraft carriers

Chinese leaders want to field at least three aircraft carriers -- apparently not including their current one, the Shi Lang -- to keep pace with their neighbors around Asia, according to a report Monday. That adds up to an ultimate goal of four ships, although Chinese leaders' official view seems to be the Shi Lang is a "training and research" vessel, as opposed to a full-fledged warship. Here was the account from Agence France-Presse:

"If we consider our neighbours, India will have three aircraft carriers by 2014 and Japan will have three carriers by 2014," General Luo Yuan, a senior researcher with the Academy of Military Sciences, was quoted as saying by Beijing News."So I think the number (for China) should not be less than three so we can defend our rights and our maritime interests effectively."

His comments, published Friday, came after China sought to downplay the capability of its first aircraft carrier, saying on Wednesday the vessel would be used for training and "research." Beijing believes that the three Japanese carriers it referred to, built for helicopter operations, could eventually be converted into full aircraft carriers.

China recently confirmed it was revamping an old Soviet ship to be its first carrier, a project that has added to regional worries over the country's fast military expansion and growing assertiveness on territorial issues.

"We are currently re-fitting the body of an old aircraft carrier, and will use it for scientific research, experiments and training," defence ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng told a news briefing. Asked whether the carrier's addition to China's military arsenal would significantly raise the country's military capability, Geng said only that to "overrate or underrate the carrier's role are both incorrect".

What a helpful answer. But you have to deal with a lot of official doublespeak when trying to understand the Western Pacific naval arms buildup -- as the AFP story mentions, Japan doesn't consider its Hyuga-class warships to be "aircraft carriers." The 18,000-ton, axial-decked, aviation-optimized ships are "helicopter destroyers," you see, or DDHs, and today do not operate squadrons of fixed-wing aircraft. India, on the other hand, does concede its aircraft carriers are aircraft carriers, but its naval projects take so long to finish that there's just no way it will have China's feared class of three flattops by 2014. They're there on paper, though.

It's very interesting that China's professed motivations for building a carrier fleet are to keep up with the Joneses. Although Midway-type sea battles don't seem likely or desirable from an American perspective -- today's carriers are for projecting power, not fighting other carriers; if you want to sink the other guy's fleet, send your submarines -- maybe the Chinese disagree. Their desire to have at least one carrier for each one fielded by their neighborhood rivals is an echo of the old dreadnought era, when you had to have at least enough battleships to match the other guy, on the assumption that they'd duel it out in a Jutland-style surface action. Admirals chose not to consider the disruptive effects of submarines and naval air power until actual wars forced them to.

Do the Chinese want aircraft carriers so they can fight other aircraft carriers? Could they really be that old fashioned? Why not just say, "we want at least three carriers because we feel like it," as opposed to citing the size of other peoples' fleets? The answer, as some analysts have argued for years, may come down to the reality that fielding carriers, for China, is as much a matter of pride as it is of strategy.

 

Photo: U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence illustration of a notional Chinese aircraft carrier

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