Thursday, June 11, 2015

China's Carrier Envy

By far the most powerful symbol of China’s design on regional dominance is the development of her own fleet of aircraft carriers. With one flat-top already launched and two to three more in the works, an interesting question arises.

Why would a nation that has spent considerable time and effort to deny the U.S. Navy freedom of maneuver by creating the impression that its aircraft carriers were vulnerable embark on the expensive, logistically arduous, and operationally dubious decision to build its own carriers?

Whether in a direct or support role, carriers have taken part in almost every major military operation the United States has undertaken since the Second World War. They also serve as first-rate diplomatic tools to either heighten or ease political pressure. When regional tensions increase, a carrier, or sometimes two, is sent to patrol off their coast. And when an election takes place in a nascent democracy or country central to U.S. interests, a strike group typically is sailing offshore.

China understands that in the steady-state security environment of the Western Pacific, its carrier force would be a pivotal and influential capability, essential to its quest for regional dominance.  Furthermore, China understands that in a maritime conflict with virtually any nation but the United States, its carriers would be would be a powerful combat advantage.

Aircraft carriers combine the ability to carry out everyday missions well while remaining a deadly warfighting platform. Carriers remain premier instruments for presence, deterrence, and coercion, while the embarked air wing renders the carrier a potent warfighting system able to project power and exert control of the seas around which it operates. Though achieving this unmatched capability has taken the U.S. Navy decades, the Chinese may realistically replicate it within twenty years. Additionally, the Chinese Navy will contend with the U.S. Navy for dominance in the Pacific under China’s growing anti-access/area denial umbrella, reducing the risk to its carrier force

Finally, China understands that if conflict with the United States comes, its carriers’ warfighting capability would—like the rest of its arsenal—have to be employed based on the principle of calculated risk. It would be wise for strategists in the United States to remember these same principles.