Friday, May 10, 2019

Arresting development, or arrested development..?

Apparently the PLAN is in the process of laying down a second large fleet carrier before the first has even fully entered operational service.

What I find kind of interesting about this is it seems to confirm Andy's observation when we talked about the subject back in February that the PRC and the PLAN have bigger ambitions than simply dominating the near abroad/South China Sea. One carrier can be dismissed as curiousity; two seems more like a plan.

What I find kind of fascinating about this is how it seems like if you're a highly-placed naval officer with big ambitions for power projection - or a naval bureaucrat responsible for force design and ship orders - it doesn't matter if you work for the USN or the seems like you just want to build carriers, regardless of whether those carriers can help you do what you want to do.

Our frequent commentor Sven spent a ton of time dissecting the notions of 21st Century naval power back in 2018 and - while his whole series is worth a read, I'll quote from his conclusion:
"Navy bureaucracies have zero incentive to become storage administrators running inventory and function checks on thousands of containers. They want ship hulls to play with. They want to go cruise at sea. That's what a navy is all about in their opinion - regardless of whether this is a means to a reasonable end.

We need military bureaucracies that offer the most cost-efficient approach to satisfy deterrence and defence needs, not clubs of men who want to play with ships or boats at the taxpayer's expense. The outcome of European naval bureaucracies pursuing their self-interest is a combination of very high expenses and a de facto absent ability to secure maritime trade. We need the civilian masters of the naval bureaucracies to rein in and bring them on course to pursue the national interest over their bureaucratic self-interest, for the navies would never be able to do so or even only admit that they don't serve the national interest first and foremost. Without such an intervention we will simply keep wasting money for next to no benefits in return."
When we talked about this earlier Sven also made the observation that since 1945 carriers have been used exclusively as a land-attack platform. Does the PLAN's enthusiasm for carriers mean not that they see them as a way of securing their maritime supply lines - which, if you read Sven's series makes a good case for big warships as a very inefficient and cost-ineffective way to do that - but, rather, that they see themselves as doing the sort of imperial diddling around in the hustings that the USN has been doing with their carriers?

You'd think, given the history of the results of many U.S. "interventions" outside the western hemisphere (and not a few of them INside...) that a sensible polity would take that not as an example but as a warning.

So...Chinese carriers? Hubris? Great Power affectation? Part of a cunning geopolitical strategy? Just following the fad? Geopolitical mistake?


  1. I akso wrote in another post that we should look at their support ship fleet (replenishment etc.) if we want to estimate their intentions.
    Their high seas support fleet grows mightily. They are not focused on waters within the "first island chain".
    Such ships are not prestigious; amere copying for prestige is plausible for carriers and nuke subs, but not for replenishment shipd.

  2. The US and China are focused on carriers because they still provide capabilities that cannot be accomplished with any other naval platform. And given the advancements in precision, long-range strike capabilities, carriers are arguably more important than ever. We can extend Patton's maxim that "Fixed fortifications are a monument to the stupidity of man" to include not just fortifications, but any fixed infrastructure.

    Recent wargames have shown a vexing problem when it comes to land-based airpower in the Pacific. China may not have the technology or training to contest our aircraft in the air, but they are easy to destroy on the ground. Precision long-range strike combined with the ability to saturate base defenses make our air forces and their necessary support infrastructure vulnerable. It's one reason why the US, in particular, is so offensively oriented - we need to take out an enemy's ability to strike our vulnerable rear areas as quickly as possible.

    Let's remember what a carrier fundamentally is - a floating, mobile airfield. The carrier's strength is not the ship itself, but the airwing. Carriers built decades ago are more powerful today simply because we have much more capable aircraft on them. Carriers are inherently modular since you can tailor the airwing to the mission - that's not something that can be done with most ships.

    And the dominance of airpower over the sea has not changed since WWII. The fact that US combat by US carriers has been focused on land since WWII is only because we never went to war with the Soviets and no other Navy sought to seriously challenge us. When I joined the Navy in 1993, my intelligence training was still exclusively focused on Naval threats and especially the Russians/Soviets.

    Unlike land forces which can use terrain, concealment or hide among the people, there is no hiding on the ocean unless you're a submarine. But the oceans are vast, so you also need good long-range ISR to find targets and conduct sea control. Those are two things a carrier can do better than any other platform.

    So yeah, I think the Chinese are for real. They need to deter/defeat the US to credibly take Taiwan (or present Taiwan with a fait accompli) and bully regional opponents. To do that they need some blue-water capability so carriers make complete sense. They also fit into China's other goals and give them the option to be a more global force in the future.

    1. So here's my question, though - and it really IS a question, I'm not trying to snark you. I honestly haven't studied the issue enough to know the answer.

      IS there still a genuine "strength" - in blue-water naval war - to having a ginormous floating airfield?

      ISTM that a lot of that is dependent on assuming that many of the conditions of 1945 still apply - in particular, that the primary threat to carriers is the aircraft flown from other carriers. But as a stupid GI, it seems like the improvement in submarine capabilities as well as the increased threat of stand-off missiles make life for big carriers pretty dangerous. And I'm sure that rival navies have been trying to figure out a workaround for USN carriers since the end of WW2. Is there any indication, one way or the other, how they have fared?

      Obviously a big part of it is that - fortunately - we lack any sort of real-world data points. My sole real-world example is the Falklands War, and IIRC the RN took a bunch of losses to the Argentine air force despite handicaps like bomb fuze problems and operational limitations, and the loss of the Belgrano to submarine torpedo sent pretty much the whole Argentine fleet back to port. The Falklands, tho, seems to emphasize the vulnerability of surface hulls to air and submarine attack...which is what makes me wonder how survivable the big carrier decks would be in a Big War blue-water fight.

      Obviously there have been a LOT of changes since the Eighties, though, which is why I ask; I'm just not dialed in enough to know if those changes would seem to make life less fraught for the big flattops, or not.

    2. I think you're right that are some open questions and unanswered data points.

      I would just make two broader arguments:

      - What is the alternative to what a carrier can do? Building more destroyers/cruisers or whatever ships also does not solve the problem of submarine or long-range aircraft vulnerability - arguably those ships are just as, if not more, vulnerable to those threats.
      - A carrier force operating in the open ocean is pretty difficult to target effectively. The Soviets used a combination of radar satellites, tattle-tale ships, and long-range aviation to try to keep tabs on them. They came to rely more on SSGN's with long-range missiles to attack carriers because they found it was difficult to get attack subs in a position to engage with torpedoes.

      For a country like China, we'd have to assess their ability to locate, track, and PID ships operating out in the pacific and then we'd have to assess their ability to act on that intelligence in a timely manner (the sensor-to-shooter problem). It's not easy, and even back in the 90's we often had trouble tracking Russian ships and even third-world naval vessels unless we threw a ton of ISR at it.

      I do think the biggest blue-water threat is submarines, but the Chinese, so far, have yet to match what the Soviets were able to do. More worrying are the Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles, but those aren't wonder-weapons either and they still have to have actionable targeting data.

      Like anything else, much depends on circumstances, tactics, risk tolerance for a mission, etc. Carriers may have to, in the initial stages of a conflict, operate further away, or in the shadow of friendly-land-based assets until the the various threats are lessened or mitigated. And they will be a constant threat and worry to any enemy.

    3. I think you make a terrific point in that 1) airpower is the "new black" of warfighting in the 21st Century; whether or not it's "decisive" if you have it and your opponent doesn't it makes their life much more difficult, and 2) without carrier decks you can't have flexible and responsive airpower once you get very far from land.

      So, yeah. I DON'T see how you have genuine power projection without some sort of flattop.

    4. Yeah, I don't see it either.

      And personally, I've never liked arguments over what is "decisive." To me it's like arguing whether the bullet or the rifle is decisive - the reality is that they need each other. So combined arms is what is decisive in my book.

  3. Hubris? Great Power affectation? Part of a cunning geopolitical strategy? Just following the fad? Geopolitical mistake?"

    Or maybe all or most of the above?

    Sven is right to point at their replenishment fleet. Without those, their carrier(s) is/are relegated to waters not far from home: i.e. within the 9-Dash-Line of the South China Sea, the Taiwan Straits, and the Yellow and East China Seas. Their String of Pearls in the Indian Ocean would only give them an inshore capability. But with the support ships they are building it gives them the potential for Blue Water operations. I'm not sure how good their UNREP capability is, but they have conducted some exercises with that included.

    Most seem to think the PLAN is still a brown or green water Navy, but British naval historian & professor Geoffrey Till believes they already have achieved a blue water status:

    Another thing to look for is their amphibs. They have six amphibious warfare ships compared to nine in the US Navy; plus they (the Cinese) have five more under construction. That does not count their LSTs and LSMs of which they have anywhere from 57 up to 63 depending on whose count you go with. The US Navy gave up on those and retired the last one back in 1996 I believe. There are some probably in the mothball fleet if they have not been sold for scrap. The Chinese Navy regularly exercises amphibious landings. And recently they have been doing joint landing exercises with the Russian Navy and Russian Naval Infantry, both on their own shores and on northern Russian shores (less than 100 nautical miles from Japan).

    Bottom line? All those amphibs need air support.

    And if they are smart, then ditto for their submarine force.

  4. As far as Sven's argument about securing supply lines, I think the problem with his argument is a faulty premise. The balance is currently tipped quite heavily to the offense. Convoys and their escorts are simply too vulnerable to modern air, sea and submarine threats, which have too many tools to overcome convoy defenses. They are simply no match for a modern blue-water force. It also doesn't make sense to cede sea control to focus on point defense unless that's you're only choice - it not only grants initiative to the enemy, it doesn't effectively attrit enemy forces.

    The US view is that it's better to interdict and destroy the enemy fleets as well as their port and supporting infrastructure. In his post Sven mentions bottling up enemy convoy raiders in the Med so they can't resupply. You can do that in the Pacific as well if you destroy the enemy's port infrastructure and maintain the ability to strike ships and subs when they return to port. The goal is ultimately to clear the seas so convoys aren't needed instead of building a force that can do little except try (and fail) to protect convoys.

    We take the same approach to airpower. We don't keep our aircraft in a defensive posture and wait for the enemy air force to come attack our forces - we move to wipe out their air power entirely as quickly as possible. Then we don't have to worry about maintaining defensive CAPS and we can focus on supporting the ground forces or interdiction or whatever.

    And I think the Chinese realize this - a convoy protection strategy won't work against the US Navy - we have the firepower, ISR and flexibility to find any convoy, concentrate our forces and overwhelm any convoy defenses. It's not the 1940's anymore.

    1. The U.S., most of Europe, Japan, Australia and India are in the favourable position of being able to channel most if not all their maritime trade through sea lanes that are very difficult to reach for land-based fighter-bombers (even Su-34) in wartime. This makes GP (or AAW) warships somewhat useful for securing high seas sea lanes in a convoying scheme.

      Taiwan, South Korea, PRC and Russia could rather not secure their maritime trade like this against determined and capable attack in wartime.

      It is fashionable to think of SSI/SSP (conventional air independent propulsion attack submarines)as coastal submarines. That's quite nonsensical given their actual endurances (comparable to WW2 type VIIs) and their sizes (most of them are bigger and more comfortable than Germany's long to extra long range type IX submarines of WW2). It's very questionable if we could (in the 30's) reliably bottle up an underdog navy (or underdog component) of such subs without the help of straits (such as Bosporus, Kattegat). Such subs could pose both a torpedo and an anti-ship missile threat, so both ASW and AAW escorts would have a job.

      BTW, it would be very difficult to put Arkhangelsk port out of action for long with only cruise missiles (and the West wouldn't be able to hit it with anything else).

      "And I think the Chinese realize this - a convoy protection strategy won't work against the US Navy (...)."

      I get your idea, but kind of the opposite is true. You're correct in a war (save for PRC-Taiwan convoys).
      Yet the U.S. might send its USN to block oil exports from the P. Gulf to PRC in 2025, similar to the Cuban blockade 1962. Likewise, Chinese ships may be stopped while supplying arms to some African country.
      The PLAN could then dispatch a task force to enforce Chinese freedom of navigation with a credible-enough threat of using lethal force. This might become the most useful role for the PLAN in this century.

  5. The Chinese have been building subs for decades and not a one of them has completed a blue water cruise lasting more than a week. A carrier is just a minimum troll requirement to get the US to pump endless cash into the Fords and placate their own MIC.

    This is a country that could fund multiple moonshots but instead plugs away at infrastructure and bringing Marco Polo’s vision to reality. Asia and Africa are enough. They could build a chunnel to Taiwan decades faster than cloning a Ford.

    1. They must have amazingly fast subs then:

    2. LOL. 25 years after launch a Type 091 went to Aden according to CCTV.

      So they’ve made it to Sri Lanka once or twice in a 50 year nuclear program. More than enough data points for US Naval strategery.

      Q for anyone who saw - CCTV had Xi reviewing his fleet in the last week or so. Was that fog or smog his fleet was in? He didn’t seem too happy.

    3. And it's worth noting, too, that it might be that "...not a one of them has completed a blue water cruise lasting more than a week."...or it might be that the only information in public domain suggests "...that not a one of them has completed a blue water cruise lasting more than a week."

      I could see how it's very likely that none of the parties involved has an interest in publicizing the capabilities of the PLAN submarine forces...

  6. There is some confusion about the naming conventions of Chinese carriers. Or maybe it is just me. The Diplomat article you link to calls this latest carrier the Type 002. But that is an older construction start that was laid down two plus years ago. There is an even newer construction start. My understanding of China’s carriers currently afloat or under construction is:

    - 1st is the ‘Liaonang’ AKA Type 001, which is a retrofit of the old Soviet Varyag. Commissioned in 2012. It has mainly been in a training and test role with double and in some cases triple crews with the extra crew members learning the ropes thru OJT. Just last month its training role was dropped and it is now reportedly operational and battle ready.

    - 2nd is the ‘Shandong’ AKA Type 001A, which stated as a knock-off of the Liaonang but eventually got several improvements. Launched two years ago in April 2017. She has undergone five sea trials, and will perhaps become formally commissioned this year.

    - 3rd is the Type 002, no name yet assigned that I know of. Construction started in March 2017. 20% larger than the Liaonang with a capacity for 40 fighters, some rotary wing, and an E-2 AEWC lookalike. Originally expected to be launched next year and become operational in 2023. But perhaps she is behind schedule.

    - 4th is the Type 003. It had already started construction in Jiangnan Shipyard a year and a half ago in December 2017. 50% bigger than the Liaoning, with at least 70 aircraft. The intent was for her to be nuclear powered. To be launched late in the next decade. She is expected to be the first in a class of four ships.

    Beijing media has previously quoted military sources as saying ”China wants at least six carriers and four operational aircraft carrier battle groups active by 2030.”

    And to enlarge on Andy's comment regarding Taiwan: Another recent Beijing article says the building of aircraft carriers displays "the high expectations among the Chinese people over solving the Taiwan question, because they want the country to use the first domestically built aircraft carrier as a symbol to announce its determination and ability to achieve this aim, and also send a tough warning signal to the secessionists in Taiwan.”.

    1. The thinking in CVBGs is typical American. That USN cruising of the seven seas with battle-incapable small task forces requires multiple CVBGs, but war doesn't.

      An actual war-oriented thinking would assume that all carriers are united in a single battlefleet. The defence needs are almost fixed, so adding more carriers to a task force first allows to match the defensive needs at all and then continues to add almost 1:1 offensive power.

  7. So here's my "big picture" question.

    ISTM that the "what are they good for" issue makes a big difference on how loaded a geopolitical issue these ships are.

    If they're intended to be support for Belt-and-Road gunboat diplomacy then they may be worrisome...but they may also be liveable-with for any U.S. that's not utterly paranoid about peer competitors. A U.S. that doesn't feel the imperative to be supreme everywhere could, in my view, be willing to live with a PRC having spheres of influence where their carriers would do what USN carriers do now, and support their local proxies and "protect PRC interests".

    (How willing any U.S. politician would be to let that happen? I have NO idea...)

    But...if they are intended to really "rule the waves", to exert Great Power control over the global commons...I really don't see a way for a U.S. government NOT to butt heads with that. I'd like to think that both the PRC and USA could rub along in a multipolar Great Power world, but the historical examples are not good. Great Power politics seems to lean to the Highlander "there can be only one" model, and the competing Great Powers seem to drift into military competition to go with the political and economic.

    When the PRC was a purely Asian continental power the possibility that it and the US could coexist fairly amicably (yes, Andy, I know, but the "war" between them is and has been more-or-less without shooting, so far...). But if BOTH of them have global ambitions it seems to put us much closer to the Cold War-type superpower standoff we lived with between the late Forties and the Nineties.


    1. I think you raise the key issue.

      From my perspective, I think the Chinese are looking to secure their near-abroad and right past wrongs (real or perceived). Central to that is Taiwan and China is not only building the military capabilities to credibly invade, but also the capabilities to directly threaten Taiwan's chief ally, us. For me the key is looking at what the Chinese are investing in when it comes to military capabilities, but that matches up pretty well with their goals as we understand them.

      So before we even get to the question of whether China wants to replace the US as the world's hegemonic great power, we are already on a collision course. The network of alliances we've built to bring post-WWII stability cannot really coexist with China's near-term regional goals. So I worry a great deal about miscalculation and wonder how this ends.

  8. Let's hope it is only a Cold War and does not turn into a hot war, which would be catastrophic for both China and the US.

    But do NOT expect it to be the same as our previous Cold War. China is not the Soviet Union. My assumption is that Beijing will act much differently than the Kremlin Plus their economic power and manufacturing mastery will make them a much tougher opponent.

    1. I can't see what either would get out of a hot war. Doesn't mean it can't happen - none of the combatants of WW1 really had anything worthwhile to gain and, yet, the war came.

      I agree that a US-PRC "Cold War" would be very different; for one thing, the PRC has a relatively-working economy compared to what we now know the Soviets had. Andy has pointed out that the US is already in a sort of economic "cold war" with the PRC, and I tend to agree in the sense the the two are competing and are likely to find each other bumping heads over markets even more in the future.

      What will be interesting (in the "scary" sense) is which way the Russians will jump. You'd think they'd find common cause with the US to prevent a powerful China from threatening their Far East. But I wonder if the lingering distrust from the first Cold War, plus the anger at the looting and wreckage of the former Soviet Union that took place with the eager assistance of the Western vulture capitalists might tip them the other direction..?

    2. Plus I think back the start of WWII - after we cut the Japanese off, they decided they had no choice but to take the southern resource area and that meant war with the US.

      Given our economic interdependence, is it possible we could do something that would put the Chinese in a position where they think they have no other choice but war?

      I also hope that we are not dumb enough to drive the Chinese and Russians into an anti-US alliance.

  9. Russia already jumped a long time ago. They are as close to China now as they were 70 years ago before the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s. They have not enacted a strategic alliance. But they are certainly co-belligerents, whether in a cold war or a future hot war. They regularly conduct joint exercises - ground, air, and naval. Putin has sold Xi S-400 SAMs and upgraded SU-35 fighters along with much other advanced military equipment.

    Last year Xi gave Putin China's first-ever friendship medal, calling him “my best, most intimate friend.”

    Commercially they do $100 Billion in trade annually. Russia provides more crude oil to China than does the Middle East. Russia has built the Power of Siberia pipeline in order to provide China with 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year starting in December of this year.

    Putin may be a boob on skates in a hockey rink, and Xi may look like Winnie the Pooh, but neither of them are as stupid as our Orange Brokohontas.

    1. "Putin may be a boob on skates in a hockey rink, and Xi may look like Winnie the Pooh, but neither of them are as stupid as our Orange Brokohontas."

      That is certainly true. And I would add that our FP establishment still acts as if it's the 1990's and 2000's where we can do whatever we want regardless of what the rest of the world thinks. That ship has sailed.

  10. Off topic: "Iran has said that it does not see the US forces in the Gulf as a threat as much as it does as a target, reports said on Sunday. The comments were made by a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander, Amirali Hajizadeh, who is the head of the Guards' aerospace division, according to Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA)."

    I agree with Andy's previous comment that: "A carrier force operating in the open ocean is pretty difficult to target effectively." But 'open ocean' is the key phrase there. A carrier force in the enclosed Persian Gulf may not be sitting duck but they are at greater risk there than outside. So I would hope they move the USS Abraham Lincoln and her task force to outside the Gulf. Use the old GONZO station like they did back during the Hostage Crisis.

    The Gulf of Oman is not 'open ocean' but it is a damned site better place to be for a carrier than being a fish in a barrel inside the Persian Gulf.

    1. I think this Iran hubbub will amount to nothing, but I do agree - the Gulf is a vulnerable waterway.