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Chinese Aircraft Carrier Development and Strategy: Implications for the United States and its Allies

(China’s First Aircraft Carrier, the Liaoning. Source: Zero Hedge.)

Q&A with Dr. Toshi Yoshihara

By: Drew Jones |

In 2015, the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC, China) Ministry of National Defense published its military strategy which highlighted the increasing importance of maritime dominance stating that “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.” In line with this strategy, China has ramped up the development of aircraft carriers, launching its first home-grown carrier, the Type 100A, on April 26, 2017. With a third carrier on the way, it is vital that the U.S. and its allies and partners understand the scope of the threat posed by Chinese carriers.

The Project 2049 institute and Dr. Toshi Yoshihara discussed the development and capabilities of Chinese carriers, the risks of the construction of carriers, and possible U.S. responses to increased carrier activity. Dr. Yoshihara is currently a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) and the former John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the U.S. Naval War College.

What is the strategic military value of an aircraft carrier for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)?

The carrier confers prestige to China. But, it is more than a status symbol. The carrier’s central role—its raison d’être—is war fighting. Carriers are built to fight and win a nation’s wars. We should not lose sight of this basic rationale for Chinese flattops. Two types of operations stand out: sea control and power projection. Sea control is the foundation upon which all other operations rest. As the Chinese themselves define it, sea control enables one side to use the seas freely within a circumscribed geographic space for a specific time to achieve a set of wartime aims. Sea control precludes the adversary from using freely the same sea space. Power projection, which sea control makes possible at an acceptable cost, is the capacity to engage and influence events on land from the sea. As the PLAN has demonstrated since the commissioning of its first carrier in 2012, it will methodically develop the skills and capabilities for sea control and power projection. While we can debate the timing and scale of these operational capabilities, I think it would be imprudent to discount sea control and power projection as core missions for future Chinese carriers.

As of now, the PLAN’s order of battle does not give carriers a core role, how might that change going into the future?  

Change is happening now. The PLAN is engaged in a major buildup that is historic in its speed and scale. To get a sense of how far the Chinese have already come, let’s look at their surface fleet. By my estimate, China had about seven destroyers and frigates that could be considered modern by Western standards in 2007. Ten years later, the PLAN had about eighty destroyers, frigates, and corvettes. By the end of this year, the Chinese navy could have over ninety top-of-the-line surface combatants. I’m prepared to accept any superlative to describe this extraordinary construction spree. But, the rate of growth tells only part of the story. The PLAN is putting to sea a wide range of warships and auxiliaries—many of which would be essential to future carrier operations—at breakneck speed. The Type 055 cruiser—the world’s largest surface combatant in serial production—and the Type 052D destroyer (also in serial production) could serve as picket ships for the carrier. China’s growing combat logistics fleet, including the new Type-901 replenishment vessel, is another sign of Beijing’s global maritime ambitions. The network of Chinese bases and access points, stretching from the South China Sea through the Indian Ocean to the Gulf of Aden, will also provide the logistical infrastructure for sustained operations far from Chinese shores.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has shifted its doctrine to provide more resources for “sea control” instead of “sea denial,” however the PLA’s current doctrinal approach is still heavily focused on missile-centric, fire-power strike and counter-intervention operations. Considering the enormous costs to create and maintain carriers, what are the risks the PLAN is taking diverging so many resources to carriers instead of its more dominant technologies?

There is no doubt that substantial amounts of capital—both material and intellectual—are required to sustain a carrier program. The carriers are a measure of China’s strategic will to the seas. But, I would argue that sea control and sea denial are not necessarily mutually exclusive, especially for nearby contingencies. China’s shore-based maritime strike systems, including cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, fighters, bombers, and so forth, can provide a protective umbrella beneath which a surface fleet can fulfill a range of warfighting missions. Given the growing range of the PLA’s shore-based fire support, the Chinese fleet could influence events across vast areas of maritime Asia that Beijing deems important.

Moreover, Beijing has demonstrated its willingness and ability to rebalance resources as the circumstances warrant. China is already pursuing a dual-pronged approach designed to cope with contingencies close to home and in faraway theaters. Indeed, Beijing’s 2015 defense white paper declared that the PLAN would seek to meet the demands of near seas defense and far seas protection. The former refers to high-end combat along its periphery while the latter connotes constabulary missions in extra-regional settings. I would therefore not discount China’s ability to balance its priorities and resources in the realm of doctrine and capabilities.   

For decades, China’s impressive economic growth and its priority on military modernization have enabled the PLAN to invest across the board. The Chinese navy bulked up on capabilities to coerce Taiwan and deter third-party intervention and laid the foundation for an expeditionary posture. It is possible that slowing growth in the coming years will sharpen resource trade-offs between investments in general-purpose forces and capabilities that are more narrowly confined to single missions or contingencies. I think it behooves us to think more deeply about potential opportunity costs for the PLAN and what they might mean for the shifting terms of the Sino-U.S. competition over the long term.

U.S. carrier visits have been essential in reassuring allies and demonstrating military power to the international community. What is your assessment of China’s military diplomacy? What other non-military benefits can carriers provide the PLAN and the PRC government?

I expect future Chinese carriers to engage in naval diplomacy, a mission that the PLAN has engaged in for decades. China’s carriers would not only show the flag in foreign ports, but they could also be dispatched to overawe neighbors in shows of force during crises, giving Beijing a potent tool in the conduct of foreign relations. The PLAN has already made its presence felt in areas that were once the preserves of Western navies, including the Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea. A Chinese carrier could further dramatize the shift in the maritime balance of power in Asia and beyond. For example, what would a PLAN carrier visit to Singapore’s Changi Naval Base do to regional perceptions of Chinese sea power?  In the not-so-distant future, the PLAN could engage in more robust forms of gunboat diplomacy to signal its resolve. How might the world respond to a Chinese carrier battle group transiting the Strait of Hormuz to enter the Persian Gulf during times of regional tensions in the Middle East? For years, Beijing has clamored to amplify its voice on the global stage commensurate with its growing power and interests. Carriers would be one effective implement for China to speak up for itself.

Over the past decade, the Chinese navy has engaged in peacetime operations, including sea-lane security and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, that preview the potential utility of carriers. Chinese anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean have been ongoing on an uninterrupted basis for nearly a decade. The PLAN has helped evacuate Chinese nationals from Libya and Yemen and escorted the transport of chemical weapons from Syria. If called upon, Chinese carriers could take part in similar types of missions in the future. It’s worth reemphasizing that the carrier’s primary role will be for warfighting purposes. These peacetime missions, while not trivial, are secondary.

PLAN carriers will extend the range of aircraft and allow more complex missions within the first and second island chain. Will carriers embolden China to further implement control within the first island chain and expand outwards into the second island chain?

I think it depends on what is meant by the term “control.” It would also depend on the circumstances. In peacetime, carriers would give Beijing more tools to demonstrate its resolve, escalate or de-escalate tensions, and intimidate rivals. A carrier would be an overmatch against most of China’s neighbors, especially those in Southeast Asia. As such, forward deployments and deterrent patrols within and along the first island chain could have an outsize psychological impact on weaker local players while helping to probe the defenses of China’s opponents. Routine carrier operations across maritime Asia and beyond may also help Beijing seize control of the narrative about its ascent as a sea power. As I noted earlier, a Chinese surface fleet could operate under the protective cover of shore-based fire support should deterrence fail. The corollary is that the increasing range and numbers of Chinese anti-access capabilities will help to extend the reach and combat power of the PLAN’s surface fleet.

How can the United States, along with regional allies and partners, respond to increased Chinese carrier activity in the South China Sea and beyond?

It was not too long ago that a U.S. surface combatant could transit the entire length of the South China Sea without encountering a single Chinese counterpart at sea. Today, U.S. warships steaming there are routinely and persistently shadowed by the PLAN. The first step, then, is to acknowledge new realities: the PLAN and its carriers will be a permanent complicating factor in maritime Asia and they will be more active on the world’s oceans. The U.S. and its allies need to accept that they will face a more congested, competitive, and contested maritime environment in the coming years.

However, China’s carrier program and the larger naval buildup are creating their own sets of vulnerabilities. First, for the first time in over a century since the destruction of the Beiyang Fleet in the First Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese have a fleet of capital ships to lose. Second, the character of modern sea combat, involving (as it does) massive exchanges of long-range precision strike weaponry, suggests that a fleet could be doomed in a single afternoon. Third, historically, land powers that could have afforded to lose their fleets were still nevertheless loathe to risk them. These factors suggest that there are opportunities, hitherto unavailable to the United States and its allies in the past, to influence the Chinese risk calculus.

One way of doing so is by taking a page from the Chinese themselves. Allied powers should invest in anti-access capabilities of their own as a counter to the PLAN’s surface fleet. Japan, for example, has deployed truck-mounted anti-ship cruise missile units to the Southwestern Islands. Taiwan, too, has fielded similar systems. By deploying such weaponry on allied soil along the first island chain, akin to a maritime spike strip, allied defenders can substantially drive up the cost of the Chinese surface fleet’s operations across large areas of the East and South China Seas in wartime.

Long-accustomed to maritime supremacy since the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States will have to undergo a shift in mentality as much as a change in posture within a far more competitive environment. The American sea services need to restore their offensive-mindedness and their offensive capabilities to shift the terms of the competition in their favor. Washington and allied capitals will need to develop competencies that have atrophied since the end of the Cold War. They will have to rediscover and hone skills in a contest for sea control across different domains in multiple maritime theaters. The task before them will be as daunting as it will be multifaceted.

Drew Jones is a former intern at the Project 2049 Institute. He received his B.A. in International Relations from Pennsylvania State University. Drew is currently a graduate student in the Global Governance, Politics, and Security Program at American University, concentrating on terrorism and intelligence analysis.