Official photos have been released of the Chinese Navy deploying its first ever carrier at sea as part of a ‘task force’ (http://china-defense.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/photo-op-of-year-plans-1st-carrier.html) The images suggest the Chinese Navy had around 11 ships in the force including a carrier, an LPD, six surface ships and three nuclear submarines returning to shore after 37 days away on tirals. On paper an impressive task force which helps demonstrate Chinese capabilities to the world, and once again highlights the growth of the Chinese Navy over the last few years.
But, dig beneath the surface and you see a slightly more complex picture – for starters the carrier does not appear to have an airwing embarked on her of any substance – suggesting that her ongoing trials and development of an aviation capability continue. This is not something that can be rushed, and while trials can continue, it will take some time before a fully worked up airgroup capable of operating 24/7 is out there. In the interim one suspects that the performance of the aircraft isn’t perhaps as good as hoped, particularly given the public criticism of the J15 aircraft as a ‘flopping fish’ in state media as recently as September (LINK HERE), which suggests all is not well with the programme.
|Image of the Chinese vessels at sea|
The next issue is that there are no support vessels of any type in that image – while it is possible to put to sea for some time without one, the groups capacity to support flying operations or remain at sea for a long period of time is limited. The provision of auxiliary vessels has long been the Achilles heel of the Chinese Navy, taking what is on the surface a superficially impressive Navy and realising that it is incapable of conducting global deployments without heavy reliance on shore facilities. But, does this matter though? One has to ask whether the PLAN sees its carriers and other ships as a truly global asset, or whether they are a useful additional capability to threaten in waters nearer to home. A carrier group deployed in the South China Sea has far less reliance on the need for oilers, ammunition stores and so on, particularly if they are not conducting onerous flying operations. So, while the vessels may not yet have the tanker support the RN or USN would see as essential, they may not actually need it. Until we have a better understanding of Chinese carrier doctrine, it would be wise to not necessarily write off their carrier capability just because it cannot conduct blue water operations a long distance from home. There is perhaps a danger that in looking at this image, we apply a Western mindset that says it is not a credible force because it cannot do the sort of operations that we would do with it. For a good alternate take on this, Humphrey recommends reading the War Is Boring blog for their judgement.
|The RN 2013 equivalent - the RFTG|
As a photo opportunity this represents a useful chance to show the burgeoning capability of Chinas navy, but it does not give us a chance to make a more valuable judgement on their actual capability. One should not underestimate the significant progress made by the Chinese over the last few years, but equally we should be cautious of assuming that just because they have a lot of hulls, that they can fight effectively with them. The challenge facing the Chinese Navy is significant – it is essentially trying to do two of the most difficult jobs in Naval Operations (establish fixed wing carrier operations, and also demonstrate it can support Continuous At Sea Deterrent – CASD with their new SSBN classes) simultaneously. No navy in history has had this challenge, which will require a lot of work from their very best and brightest people to succeed.
The real judgement on their capability would come from seeing how this task force would perform as a fully worked up group in a warfighting environment, and not just as a collection of ships steaming in close proximity. It will take time to build the doctrine, concepts and understanding to help get the Chinese to the point where they can do what the USN (and to a lesser extent the RN and Marine Nationale) can do or will do already. Humphrey would urge some caution in reading too much into this photograph right now – any nation can do impressive photo displays, not every nation can fight a truly high end naval war.
|Multi-ship RAS during COUGAR 13|
A final thought is that to those who look at this picture and bemoan the state of the Royal Navy, they should perhaps consider this. The RN has undergone a significant period of change, and while right now it could not put a fixed wing carrier to sea, within 2-3 years HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH will be at sea and hopefully conducting similar trials. Additionally with the new Type 45 now fully in service, ASTUTE coming on line, and with a fleet of MARS tankers and other vessels coming too, the RN is arguably going to be able to put a similar display on very soon, with new ships designed at home and purpose built for the job (not relying on 30 year old second hand Soviet era designed carriers). While Humphrey has little time for ‘picture posturing’ we should not sit here and depress ourselves by thinking about what we cannot do, but remind ourselves that the PLAN is merely demonstrating what we can pretty much already do, and will continue to be able to do for many years to come. The photos on this article come from EXERCISE COUGAR 2013, which demonstrate that the RN is well experienced not only in deploying globally, but in staging similar 'photo fleet' opportunities too!