Get on Board with the PLAN

The Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (yes, that’s what they call their navy) is getting more potent:

In the latest step in its naval modernization and expansion, China recently announced that it is accelerating serial production of an advanced destroyer. This will tilt the regional balance of power at sea in its favor and put it in a stronger position to enforce its sovereignty claims over Taiwan and in the South and East China Seas.

Yet the significance of this development and earlier moves to re-shape the Chinese Navy has tended to be overshadowed by seemingly more dramatic news about China’s refurbished Soviet-era aircraft carrier, which has just completed its 10th sea trial. The carrier has also had the hull number “16” painted near its bow, suggesting that it may be closer to being named and commissioned.

In fact, if the 60,000-ton carrier becomes the nominal flagship of the Chinese Navy, it is still quite a way from operational readiness. Even in service, it will have a limited role, mainly for training and evaluation before the expected launch of China’s first home-built carriers after 2015.


About those carriers? Don’t sweat them; not any time soon. Getting carriers right is hard.


We’re really good at it. We make it look easy, even. But the United States Navy invented the aircraft carrier. We invented the aircraft carrier battle group. We train the best pilots. We have the most experience. We invented, through a painful and bloody process against the Japanese, the world’s best aircraft carrier doctrines. And even in peacetime the things are bloody dangerous.

And all of that took about a hundred years, from the first experimental ship landings in 1911, to F/A-18 Super Hornet strikes in the center of Asia today.

The Japanese got an early start on carriers, too, launching the first-ever carrier strikes in 1914. It’s that kind of experience and dedication that allowed a second-rate industrial power to chase us all over the Pacific in 1942 and 1943. But in the end, they still lost.

Britain has the best naval tradition in the world, probably, but they’re pretty much out of the power-projection business. Their next aircraft carrier will be co-owned and operated with the French. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict trouble.


The Russians gave it their best shot, but bankrupted themselves in the process. China’s first carrier is Russia’s last one. The Russians were never able to complete a real, flat-deck carrier, despite years of trying. So they sold it to the Chinese, and if the article I quoted is above, they’re close-ish to turning it into a training vessel.

They’re going to need a lot of training.

The Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (I never get tired of typing that) is a lot like the old Soviet Navy. It’s very expensive, their ships are mostly second- or third-rate, and their crews spend most of their time tied up at port, instead of training on the high seas.

All these things are changing, and probably faster than we’d like. Let’s not forget that China is still a rising power, while the Soviets were already in decline before they got serious about carriers. But if you’re expecting to see Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy ships patrolling our shores in force any time soon, just relax already.

On the other hand, if you’re Taiwanese…


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