The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is learning how to deploy its conventionally powered aircraft carriers for political intimidation and potential combat missions. While they don't match the capabilities of larger and better-armed U.S. Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, it's a mistake to diminish their potential threat.
The article states, “It could be more than a decade before China can mount a credible carrier threat far from its shores, according to four military attachés and six defence analysts familiar with regional naval deployments.
“Instead, China's carriers are more of a propaganda showpiece, with doubts about their value in a possible conflict with the U.S. over Taiwan and about whether China could protect them on longer-range missions into the Pacific and Indian oceans, the attachés and analysts told Reuters.”
The article was referring to the PLAN carrier Shandong, which had just completed a 41-day mission that had the political import of a sortie of the German battleship Bismarck, steaming with its battle group to the east of Taiwan, and, for the first time, contributing to a major blockade/attack and intimidation exercise against Taiwan and the United States.
From March 19 to April 27, the Shandong deployed from its base at Sanya Harbor in Hainan Province for exercises in the South China Sea, along with a 112 missile vertical launch system (VLS) armed Type 055 cruiser, a 64 VLS armed Type 052D destroyer, a 32 VLS armed Type 054A frigate, and very likely, escorting cruise missile armed submarines.
Then, on April 4, the Shandong transited the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan to participate in the April 8 through April 10 PLA Joint Sword combined forces exercises to intimidate Taiwan—the CCP’s response to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the United States.
By April 8, the Shandong started exercise operations about 100 miles south of Japan’s strategic Sakishima Island group near Taiwan and, by April 16, reached a point about 460 miles west of the major U.S. air and naval bases on Guam, well within the 900-mile combat radius of its Shenyang J-15 strike fighters.
In contrast to the 100,000-ton nuclear-powered full conventional takeoff and landing flattop carrier USS Nimitz, steaming about 100 miles to the east of Shandong during the Joint Sword exercise, the PLAN carriers don't have catapults and utilize a “ski jump” to help its J-15 strike fighters into the air.
This means that the Chinese carriers must be pointed into the oncoming wind to launch their J-15s, which will consume more of their fuel for takeoff.
In addition, the Nimitz can carry 80 or more combat aircraft. In contrast, the Shandong can only carry about 40, which won't be corrected until the 80,000-ton conventionally powered Fujian, launched in 2022 and which can carry 50-plus aircraft, enters service in several years.
But what the Reuters article failed to explore, proving that the Shandong and the Liaoning aren't “theatrical ... propaganda [showpieces],” is that both carriers will operate within a dome of PLA anti-ship missile superiority—they were never intended for one-on-one contests with U.S. Navy carrier battle groups.
The PLA copied the strategic naval concept of one of its chief innovative heroes, the late Soviet Navy Adm. Sergei Gorshkov, who determined that to defeat the U.S. Navy’s carrier-based battle groups and ensure the survival of his nuclear ballistic missile submarines, he had to launch long-range supersonic missiles from ships, submarines, aircraft, and land bases.
The Shandong and the Liaoning can conduct small-scale air defense and air strike missions. Still, its J-15s will also be working in concert with the PLA’s arsenal of long-range hypersonic, supersonic, and subsonic speed anti-ship missiles.
The PLA's development of long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) dates to the early 1990s, when it purchased “scrap” components of the U.S. Pershing-II precision-guided medium-range ballistic missile from U.S. Army bases. Now, the PLA Rocket Force deploys the 2,500-mile range DF-26B, the 1,800-mile range DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle, the 950-mile range DF-21D, and the 620-mile range DF-16B, all ground-launched missiles.
PLA Navy ships such as the Type 055 cruiser carry the 950-mile range YJ-21 ship-launched ASBM and the 920-mile range YJ-100 anti-ship cruise missile. At the same time, older Sovremenny destroyers purchased from Russia are being up-armed with new 290-mile range YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles. Other destroyers are getting the 300-mile range YJ-18 subsonic/supersonic anti-ship cruise missile. PLA Navy submarines are armed with the YJ-18 as well.
PLA Air Force Xian H-6N bombers can carry a large yet unnamed ASBM that may have a range of 1,800 miles, while H-6K, H-6L, and H-6N bombers can carry the 300-mile range YJ-12 and the 950-mile range YJ-100.
Targeting is the Achilles' heel of the PLA’s naval missile strategy, which is why it employs layers of optical surveillance satellites, radar satellites, electronic intelligence (ELINT) satellites, ELINT aircraft, radar aircraft, unmanned surveillance aircraft, carrier-based aircraft, and thousands of civilian fishing ships.
In actual combat with U.S. Navy carrier battle groups in the regions east of Taiwan or near the Japanese Ryukyu Island chain, China’s carriers will be hiding behind a literal phalanx of missiles.
But to Reuters’s credit, the PLA Navy was insulted enough by its article to issue a May 6 press release retort, paraphrased in the May 7 state media Global Times, saying that there were “joint exercises with the Rocket Force, land-based aviation forces, and other surface combat units beyond the island chain.”
The key question is whether the U.S. Navy carrier battle group can survive multiple barrages of long-range missile attacks. Does it have enough VLS for defensive ship-launched missile intercepting missiles, or can U.S. Navy nuclear attack submarines get within the fatal range of the PLAN’s carrier and surface action groups and then its large invasion fleets?
Today, there's no justification for conceit about the balance of naval power in the Western Pacific.
The survival of U.S. Navy forces in the Western Pacific is uncertain enough to require a crash program to develop new tactical nuclear warheads for U.S. ASBMs, long-range ballistic and cruise missiles, and U.S. tactical nuclear artillery shells to deter China, Russia, and North Korea from deciding that they can win such a war.