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Why China Builds Carriers

January 28th, 2014 - 10:41 am

Liaoning-Varyag

J Michael Cole:

The reactions to what appeared to be the confirmation last week that China has embarked on a program to build its own aircraft carrier were as varied as they were expected, ranging from alarmism to the usual dismissal of the large platforms as little more than hugely expensive boats for enemy target practice. While carriers do indeed have severe vulnerabilities, they are not without their uses, though those are a function of the role(s) they are expected to play.

The first role is more psychological than utilitarian.

That last sentence — a thousand times that.

A few weeks ago I meant to blog on a piece about America’s carrier force, but that post fell by the wayside. I’ve forgotten where I read it or who wrote it, but I remember being shocked that someone I knew well enough to respect had written something so plainly silly. They had argued that carriers were just too expensive and too vulnerable. Instead we should just build more SSGN submarines to get the job done.

Don’t get me wrong — our SSGN force is a thing of wonder. By treaty we had to eliminate some SSBN strategic nuclear missile boats from our submarine fleet. So we took four of those Ohio-class boats, stripped them of their Trident nuclear-tipped missiles, and inserted new missile tubes for a max load of 154 conventional Tomahawk cruise missiles. While we were at it, we took two of the old Trident tubes and rigged them for Special Forces. You know, so that we could send in the SEALs to really mess with you after the Tomahawks had done their thing.

“Hide with pride” became “Surprise, f******!”

So put me first in line when it comes to giving the SSGN the love and respect it deserves.

But it’s no replacement for an aircraft carrier.

Look, when a Nimitz-class carrier shows up on your coast, with all its attendant warships, you know it. When we sortie several of them, then you really know we mean business. A carrier task force send a message for all the world to see and it reads, “Knock it off, buster.”

An SSGN shows up and you won’t even know it until the missiles start flying.

In other words, the aircraft carrier is as much a diplomatic tool as it is a weapon of war. An SSGN is a very sneaky and very effective weapon (or SEAL insertion device) — but its utility pretty much stops there. A super-stealthy submarine can cause a lot of damage, but it lacks presence.

So why does China want carriers? I suspect for the same reason(s) we’ve been building them for a hundred years.

All Comments   (16)
All Comments   (16)
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So, the macho - and maybe the correct - reaction to a Chinese power play is 'send a carrier'. But threatening to stop payments on our Chinese debt might be both effective and profitable.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
China has been unloading US Treasuries in recent years.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
Would somebody explain to me why it is a good idea for our Navy to be pulling carriers out of service while the PRC is trying frantically to acquire the things? Sure they're targets, damn big ones! That's the difference between a heavyweight and a middleweight. But put them in against each other and I know which way my bet would go. (What's Obama betting on?) Since I'm not Tom Clancy, I have no idea what the Navy has up its sleeve; however, it had better a be doozy to make up for deploying only two carrier groups.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
This goes beyond diplomacy.

China has large and growing economic interests around the world. Notably Africa. That means that they have sea lanes to protect. Submarines CAN NOT protect merchant ships. You have to have surface units on station to coordinate w/ the merchies and kill the things trying to kill them. Modern history, since about 1916, has proven that units must have air cover to operate. If all you want to do is not let the other guys use the ocean, subs are excellent. But if you're the other guy wanting to use the ocean., you need a blue-water navy. That means you need an aircraft carrier.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
Having flown Tomcats off the deck of carriers for a good part of my younger days, I can attest to their efficacy in getting a message across. When "96,000 tons of diplomacy" shows up off the coast of (insert name of 3rd world crap hole here) along with her air wing of 60+ strike aircraft able to deliver a sustained 24/7 strategic pounding for more than a week, the message is clear: "Whatever you're doing, stop it. Now."

The comparison to Battleships and their day of operational primacy is close but I would offer this. On their best day, a battleship could launch a 2,000lb projectile about 26 miles. Given a reasonable safe standoff from the coast of an enemy, you could maybe reach 8 or 10 miles inland to any nation, provided they had coast. A carrier, on the other hand, can reach hundreds to a thousand miles inland (provided tanker support is available) to project power on to any country on earth, not just the ones that have an oceanic border. Not a single person on the planet can thumb their nose at an US Navy aircraft carrier.

More to the point about the Chinese efforts at this ability to project power, those that minimize this new Chinese naval development should be asked the following: What is the message sent/received when the new Chinese carrier is "conducting routine flight operations in international waters".......13 miles off the coast of Los Angeles? Yeah, thought so.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
"What is the message sent/received when the new Chinese carrier is 'conducting routine flight operations in international waters'.......13 miles off the coast of Los Angeles?"

Our sonar techs are getting plenty of real-world experience, and can go home on the weekend.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment

It's also about sortie rate.

As far as I know, SSGN VLS tubes can't be replenished underway. So, while they have a very large potential fire impulse, they can't sustain it once the tubes (or the refrigerators, for that matter) are empty. They have to return to port for replenishment. The VLS tubes on a DDG have the same problem. In order to keep firepower on station, you need to have another SSGN or DDG on hand to replace the one that is empty.

A CVN can stay on station for much longer with replenishment of stores as necessary, so its firepower return on fixed cost can be much higher.

As long as you can defend it, that is. So far, the U.S. CVBG has been pretty defensible. At some point that will change, the question is when?

11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment

This calculation changes, of course, if somebody figures out how to do underway replenishment of SSGN VLS tubes.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
Not terribly likely, submarines are little more than tubes, which mean their surface sea-keeping ability leaves something to be desired.

But SSGN's aren't meant for sustained attacks. Their job is to provide the initial burst of firepower to knock down an enemy's coastal and air defence, allowing the Strike Group to provide the sortie rate. We have forward bases in Guam and Diego Garcia that can rearm an SSGN and get it back on the line rather quickly.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
the pro carrier argument you make is the very same one that was being made for battleships at the end of the battleship era. i have no idea if the carrier era is nearing a close, i suspect yes. the battleship was a terrific weapons platform for centuries and had the same psych impact for diplomacy to which you refer. then technology overcame it.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
The technology changed the platform, not the underlying requirement for presence. Carriers have Presence, submarines don't. I don't see anything on the horizon that has even the potential to replace carriers (and contrary to what you may think, there was plenty of discussion in the '20's and '30's about carriers and their potential to displace battleships, discussion that was ended Dec 7th, 1941).
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
i don't believe that i said that there was no discussion in the 20s and 30s. carriers certainly have presence and airpower gives a long reach. that said, the above article reminds me very much, right down to phrasing, of pro battleship arguments that were made in the past. (i'm a big jacky fisher fan.) as for other tech on the horizon? hypersonic rockets and planes, drones and 230 mph torpedos (1960s tech on that one. i'm sure that there is improvement i am unaware of). the carrier era i not over. i do think that it will end in my lifetime. 20 years or so, tops.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
A hypersonic missile fired from my aircraft is going to destroy your surface ship before it gets in range of my birdfarm. Flattops will be able to carry and fight more drones than smaller platforms (it's not just the flight deck. Aircraft carriers have *room* that can be used for things like flag bridges and multi-module CIC's).

I assume you're referring to supercavitating torpedoes? There's a reason there hasn't been much development of that idea. It turns out they're very loud and they can't steer. At all. Which means your target knows they've been shot at and can easily evade. The Russians did some work on them as a snap shot response to an attack by US subs. The idea is to force the sub to evade and break the guide wires to the torpedoes.

There's nothing in the development pipeline that has the potential to say "We are very interested in what you're doing" like a CVN, which means your 20 timeline is very optomistic.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
everything you say is true. everything is always the same until it isn't. i have no idea what the next game changer will be. i would call my 20 yr timeline pessimistic because i'm in no hurry for carriers to go away, but the battleship admirals weren't ready. the officers who met the gatling gun weren't ready. if you say, correctly, that hypersonic missle from your aircraft can destroy my surface ship,you are sort of making the point against surface ships. but more importantly, some bright boy in the back room is getting EMP or magic pebbles or particle beam or something we haven't even thought of to work. einstein wasn't worried about bombs and missles when he wrote FDR. he feared a device delivered by boat into a harbor. maybe carriers will last another 100 years. all i said in my initial post was the the argument was very similar to the battleship argument in the first third of the 20th century.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yes, but with a more local focus.

I still maintain that China's ambitions - at the moment - are to regional dominance, not world power projection like the US.

Their choice of carrier designs reinforces that, as does the lack of modern escort groups and their relative lack of high-end pilot training.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
Plus they're flipping cool as s@#t.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
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