China’s Aircraft Carriers are Coming, But India Should Keep Calm and Carry On
Recently, two developments concerning China caused a sensation in the media. One of them was about a Chinese humanoid robot named Jia Jia who gave her first interview in English online in an event that got much attention and press coverage around the world. The other was the launch of the China’s second indigenous aircraft carrier, the CV-17 / 001A (also known as the Shandong),to commemorate the 68th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
Other than fanfare and hype that characterizes such occasions, there was something else the two events had in common: Both involved glitches that upset Chinese viewers. In the case of Jia Jia, the female humanoid fared poorly in her first live “interview,” stumbling over basic queries and speaking only after long, labored pauses.
In the case of the carrier, a photo-shopped image of the Liaoning showed a Russian MiG 35 and land basedJ-10 fighter jets taking off from the deck of the aircraft carrier. To the horror of many Chinese viewers, ships accompanying the Chinese carrier in the doctored picture were discovered to be U.S. amphibious assault ships rather than PLAN vessels. Embarrassed by the serious nature of the publicity bumble, the Chinese Defense Ministry quickly issued a public apology.
It is no secret that aircraft operations from the Liaoning haven’t been entirely satisfactory. After a fatal crash of a J-15 (China’s only carrier-borne fighter) in July 2016, an investigation concluded that pilots and aircraft systems onboard the Liaoning were still not ready for carrier-borne operations. Beijing tried to censor revealing bits of the inquiry, but skeptics called the incident a blow to the development of China’s aircraft carrier program. Fortunately for Chinese naval planners, the media largely ignored such reports. After the Liaoning’s much-vaunted debut in December last year, the PLAN worked hard to cultivate the image of a word-class navy on the threshold of acquiring carrier aviation skills.
In India, the launch of this carrier evoked particular interest. A majority of Indian analysts saw the development in largely geopolitical terms—an announcement of China’s maritime ambition in the Indian Ocean. For three reasons, they noted, the Shandong’s launch is a strategically consequential event for India. First, China’s new aircraft carrier is of a size and type that puts India’s naval aviation capability in the shade. At 70,000 tons loaded displacement, the Type 001A is a big carrier armed with a potent set of strategic assets, including 24 J-15 fighter aircraft, an advanced point defense weapons (HQ-10 batteries), and a modern S-band radar. In comparison, India’s INS Vikramaditya is not only smaller, but also — following trouble with its integral fleet of MiG-29K fighter jets — less capable.
Delhi’s strategic community also took note of the symbolism of a Chinese aircraft carrier built and launched in a fraction of the time the Indian navy is likely to take to get its own indigenous flat-top on-line. Most strikingly, Indian analysts pointed to the sharp rhetoric from senior Chinese leaders accompanying the launch of the new carrier, emphasizing China’s maritime rights and interests in the Indian Ocean. Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s remark that the PLAN intended to produce a total of six aircraft carriers — with two deployed in the Indian Ocean—seemed particularly distressing to Indian observers, suggesting “open designs” in India’s maritime neighborhood.
Yet, India’s maritime watchers would do well to stay calm. For all the hyperbole surrounding the Shandong, there is little evidence China’s aircraft carriers will cross the operational threshold for sustained far-seas deployment in the near future. Indeed, China’s carriers may not be able to project any meaningful power in the Indian Ocean any time soon. The Liaoning — China’s only functional aircraft carrier —has a small and underdeveloped air-wing with little capacity for coordinated missions in the far littorals. The J-15 aircraft — China’s only seaborne fighter aircraft — remains limited in terms of payload and fuel capacity, and the Liaoning can carry only 12 of the aircraft.
Shandong is bigger, with a capacity for 24 J-15 fighter jets, but it will likely take a few years for it to become fully operational and start supporting fleet operations in the IOR. While China’s naval constructors and engineers deserve much credit for setting the 001A afloat in record time, their real “test” of installing sensor, weapons, and equipment lies ahead. Like the U.S. Navy, which struggled for years to ready the Gerald Ford class carrier for sea-trails, the PLAN might soon realize aircraft carrier construction is grueling, painstaking business.
Even if Beijing completes the fitment of sensor suite and weaponry on time, there may be more teething trouble for its flattops. With carrier operations, it is important to integrate the air-wing with fleet operations. This entails coordinating fighter operations with electronic attack aircraft, sea-based anti-air defense, anti-submarine warfare helicopters, etc. The aim is to have an integrated command and control network that can enable simultaneous operations of diverse platforms and deployment of multiple capabilities for maximum combat effectiveness. For two reasons, however, China’s carriers are unlikely to be able to support distance seas airborne missions any time soon. First, both Liaoning and Shandong are Short Take-off and Barrier Assisted Landing (STOBAR) carriers, which do not operate heavy fixed-wing airborne early warning and control aircraft, needing catapult assisted take-off. Second, in the absence of any credible data to critically assess its operational performance, the J-15—a Russian Su-33 clone—remains unproven in its abilities as a combat fighter.
Training of pilots is another big factor likely to delay the eventual deployment of Chinese aircraft carriers in the IOR. Liaoning has been devoted to full-time training operations because the PLAN needs to groom its naval aviators in technical and tactical skills such as aircraft navigation, communications, over-the-horizon targeting, assisted and coordinated operations, and integrated and joint missions.
While Chinese pilots will take time to reach a high level of proficiency in carrier-borne aircraft operations, deck crew training is likely to pose another challenge. Aircraft carrier operations also involve traditional aviation tasks such as refueling and rearming in cramped conditions — well in close proximity to other aircraft — for which flight deck crews will need to train long hours to learn and choreograph all movements. Moreover, Chinese carrier command-teams will have to learn to work with the highly regimented and rigidly structured Chinese air force through technological and service-culture innovations. PLAN air exercises over the littoral seas will need to be less carefully scripted than usual to develop interoperability and inter-service coordination with the air force. Inevitably, this is likely to contribute to a further delay in aircraft carrier deployments in the Indian Ocean.
All of these are important reasons for India not to fret too much about a Chinese carrier threat, but there is one reason that looms even larger: logistics. While China does possess a token logistical flotilla, it consists of several semi-submersible ships for mainly commercial use and only limited military purposes. Their naval usage has been confined largely to the South China Sea, used only occasionally to facilitate PLAN anti-piracy operations off the Gulf of Aden. Tellingly, two years after sea trials, the Liaoning has yet to undertake a voyage far from the Chinese coast, limiting its forays to the Western Pacific. An operational tour in December 2016 saw the Liaoning venture only as far as the South China Sea. Not surprisingly, a U.S. Department of Defense report concluded last year that“[l]imited logistical support remains a key obstacle preventing the PLAN from operating more extensively beyond East Asia.”
To be sure, China’s logistical hub in Djibouti is a significant advancement. Beijing is reportedly keen to develop the facility and has even setup a Joint Logistic Support Force at the site. In order to protect its maritime lifelines and its growing interests overseas, Beijing has also announced plans for the deployment of marines in Djibouti and Gwadar, a Chinese constructed port on Pakistan’s Makran coast.
India’s real problem in the Indian Ocean -, in fact, isn’t Chinese aircraft carriers but PLAN submarines — whose constant deployments in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea since 2012 has been a source of deep anxiety. Last month, the Indian navy apprised defense ministry officials of Chinese submarine activity in India’s maritime neighborhood that had grown to a steady, all-year-round presence. Apparently, there is evidence to suggest China could be using the development of maritime facilities in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh as cover for advancing undersea operations in South Asia seas. India’s fretfulness over China’s aircraft carrier plans serves to distract attention from this more serious and immediate issue, particularly since India is left with just 13 operational submarines.
And yet, Indian analysts must realize that to acquire real maritime influence around India’s maritime periphery, China will need more than submarines in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal. To materially influence the power dynamics of South Asia, the PLAN will also need aircraft carriers and sustained fleet operations for conspicuous naval power projection. This, in turn, will require supply, storage, and repair centers in the Central and Eastern Indian Ocean, without which the PLAN may find it hard to deploy its carrier battle groups in South Asian littorals for prolonged durations.
It appears then that in the short run, China’s aircraft carriers will be used more for peacetime signaling and soft power projection in the Indian Ocean. While this may in itself be a troubling prospect for India, it is unlikely to erode New Delhi’s operational and political leverage in the Indian Ocean. China knows its access agreements and commercial facilities will not be able to provide the materiel support to engage in large scale naval combat with India. But even if Beijing does setup a military logistics infrastructure chain in the Indian Ocean, its sites are all likely to be within the range of Indian strike aircraft and missiles.
New Delhi’s fear of a Chinese takeover of maritime South Asia is unlikely to come to pass in a way imagined by commentators. Indian maritime planners and policymakers must breathe easy and calmly plan for the future. The PLAN may have arrived in the Indian Ocean, but it unlikely to be an expeditionary presence in South Asia any time soon.
Abhijit Singh is a Senior Fellow and Head, Maritime Policy initiative at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.