HONG KONG: When China sailed one of its two active aircraft carriers, the Shandong, east of Taiwan last month as part of military exercises surrounding the island, it was displaying a capability it has not yet mastered that could take years to perfect.
While Beijing modernizes its military, its formidable missile forces and other naval vessels, such as advanced cruisers, are a source of concern for the United States and its allies. But it could be more than a decade before China can mount a credible aircraft carrier threat far from its shores, according to four military attaches and six defense analysts familiar with regional naval deployments.
Instead, Chinese airlines represent a propaganda showpiece, attaches and analysts told Reuters, with doubts about their value in a potential dispute with the United States over Taiwan and whether China can protect them on long-distance missions in the Pacific and Indian oceans. .
China’s Defense Ministry did not respond to questions about its carrier program, though dozens of articles in country-related journals reviewed by Reuters reveal an awareness among Chinese military analysts about the country’s carrier capability shortcomings.
Eight of the experts said that while some regional press coverage, based in part on Chinese state media reporting, has portrayed the recent exercises around Taiwan as active patrols and a military challenge to the United States and its allies, the Chinese carriers remain effectively in training mode.
Many attachés and analysts said that landing aircraft at night and in bad weather, for example—which is important for a carrier’s regular naval operations—is still far from routine.
Some experts said that in any conflict, China’s aircraft carriers will be vulnerable to missile and submarine attacks, noting that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has not mastered preventive checks, especially anti-submarine warfare.
“Unlike other parts of military modernization, there is something politically theatrical about their carrier deployments so far,” he said. Trevor HollingbyFormer British Naval Intelligence Analyst.
“Carrier operations are a very complex game, and China has to figure it all out on its own. It still has a long, long way to go.”
The attaches told Reuters, on condition of anonymity, that Chinese pilots sometimes relied on ground-based airports for take-off and landing, as well as additional air coverage and surveillance.
And although China’s Liaoning and Shandong tankers have sailed into the western Pacific in recent months, closing in on US bases on Guam, they have remained within range of coastal Chinese airfields, according to The Guardian. Mom’s cryProfessor of Security Studies at Takushoku University’s Institute of Global Studies, who reviewed Japanese Ministry of Defense tracking data.
Both the Liaoning — a refurbished former Soviet ship — and the Chinese-built Shandong have jump ramps for take-off, which limits the number and range of aircraft on board.
The 10 experts said that anti-submarine helicopters are operating from both the carriers and the Chinese Type 055 cruisers, but the carriers have not yet deployed early warning aircraft, which have so far relied on land aircraft.
The new aircraft, the KJ-600, designed to perform a similar role to the E-2C/D Hawkeye launched from US aircraft carriers, is still being tested, according to the Pentagon’s latest annual report on the Chinese military.
From ski jumping to slingshots
State media reported last month that with the Liaoning and Shandong drills gradually increasing speed, China is preparing to conduct sea trials of the next-generation carrier, the 80,000-ton Fujian. Fujian is much larger, although it is conventionally powered and will launch aircraft from electromagnetic catapults.
The ship, which the Pentagon report said could be operational by 2024, is expected to carry new variants of the J-15 jet fighter to replace an existing model that foreign analysts consider underpowered.
“Fujian, with its state-of-the-art capabilities, will be just another test bed for a good few years,” said Colin Koh, a defense scholar at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“Chinese designs and PLAN intentions will only settle in once we see the next generation of carriers.”
The carrier program reflects the ruling Communist Party’s goal of making the People’s Liberation Army a “world-class army” by 2049, and is part of President Xi Jinping’s vision of building a “great modern socialist country.”
One indication of China’s ambitions, the attaches said, would be if carriers built after Fujian were nuclear-powered like the American ones, allowing for a global reach.
A study published in December by the nonpartisan US Congressional Research Service suggested that China would use its aircraft carriers to project its power “especially in scenarios that do not involve opposing US forces” and “to persuade or intimidate foreign observers.”
Many nations operate aircraft carriers but the United States remains dominant, operating 11 aircraft carrier groups with global reach.
By contrast, China could use its carriers mainly in the Asian theater, working alongside submarines and anti-ship missiles to try to control the nearby seas.
The emergence of Shandong off Taiwan’s east coast to stage mock strikes last month surprised some analysts, given the island’s proximity to land-based airports. But, at least in the short term, the Chinese military will struggle to defend its aircraft carrier in the western Pacific in a confrontation with US and allied forces.
He said that “China’s aim in spreading Shandong is clear, it is a symbol of its political anger” over the US’s involvement with Taiwan. Yoji Kodaa retired admiral who commanded the Japanese fleet.
In a battle, he said, “it would be a very good target for the American and Japanese forces, and they would finish them off at first.”
A US defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said that while China has made progress with its carriers, it has not mastered operations in difficult conditions or how to protect ships.
One of the questions, the official said, was how the ships would be relevant in the dispute.
Hopes and shortcomings
Chinese military and government researchers seem aware of the challenges, according to a Reuters review of more than 100 recent articles published in dozens of publicly available Chinese defense journals.
The official daily PLA in October published an interview with an aircraft carrier aviation unit where the deputy chief of staff, Dai Shingadmitted “many shortcomings in the preparation for war”, and the gap between the level of training of sailors and the requirements for combat.
An editorial published in September in a magazine run by a PLA arms manufacturer and titled “Four Great Advantages of the PLA in Attacking Taiwan” did not mention the role of Chinese airlines. Instead, it said, Chinese ground-based ballistic missiles would be sufficient to overcome any potential interference from US aircraft carriers.
Two previous editorials in the same publication, Tank and Armored vehicleHe noted that China’s carriers would remain in their infancy for the foreseeable future and that other surface ships would be more useful in a conflict in the East China Sea.
Other articles in similar publications outline problems with recruiting and training pilots, vulnerabilities in submarine attack and leadership issues—which some foreign analysts say is a problem for a Navy still sailing with political commissars with executive power.
When at sea, U.S. carriers fly semi-constantly, routinely flying fighter jets, electronic warfare aircraft, and spotter aircraft to create a protective screen around the battle group.
In addition to the cost and danger of such operations, an essential component is mastery of command systems, particularly in a crisis such as an onboard fire or crash when aircraft are airborne and flight deck disabled.
The United States spent decades perfecting such systems, having expanded carrier operations after their importance in the Allied victory over Japan in the Pacific in World War II was highlighted.
“The continued operation of its air carriers lies at the very heart of what makes the US military absolutely superior,” said Alexander Neal, a Singapore-based defense analyst and associate fellow at the Pacific Forum think tank in Hawaii.
In the medium term, attachés and defense analysts said, China is likely to begin sending battle groups to the Indian Ocean, where China’s presence will be minimal beyond routine submarine operations.
Working away from ground-based airport security will test China’s ability, but preparations are under way.
The Pentagon report noted that the dock at China’s first large naval military base in Djibouti was recently extended, and can now accommodate an aircraft carrier.


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