Saturday, June 4, 2011

Varyag + China's blue water ambitions

Over the past year, I have seen numerous articles about China's aircraft program coming out as Varyag is getting closer and closer to joining service. Many of those articles are fear mongering and riding this "China is taking over America" sentiment that many Americans are feeling through this economic downturn. So, it was interesting that I read an article completely on the other side this week from wired magazine. Aside from the title, it raises some good points to think about while missing out on other points.

I think that David Axe makes a good point in bringing up all of the navies surrounding PLAN that have carrier(s) or aviation capable flattops. At this point, PLAN is just at the start of its blue water naval strategy. Due to the increasing pressure on PLAN to defend Chinese interests around the world, PLAN is finally getting into the business of building a blue water fleet. Due to its lack of experience in naval aviation and lack of contacts/training with countries that have naval aviation tradition, PLAN will be starting from a very backward position. As stated in the Wired article and by most PLAN observers, Varyag will be a training carrier once it goes into service. One can see the amount of resources that China has placed in its carrier program by the amount of resources spent on Varyag, the carrier simulation facility in Wuhan, the different take-off/landing facilities around the country and the numerous indigenous naval aviation program under way. Just from the latest photos of Varyag alone, we can see several close-in weapon systems that have not appeared in any previous PLAN ships.
We can see the new RAM-like HQ-10 SAM installed in 3 different positions on Varyag

A host of new sensors + 052C MFRs on the oversized island.

The new HQ-10 SAM + 12 barrel ASW rocket launcher + new 10/11 30mm barrel CIWS + 18 barrel multi-purpose rocket launcher

And here is a list of possible ongoing naval aviation programs. First, we have the mysterious fix-winged naval AEW program, which is probably aimed for the first domestic carrier.

And then we have the domestic Z-8 AEW program that is now going through trials with PLAN naval aviation.

Which is mixed in with 9 imported Ka-31 AEW helicopters. It's hard to say how PLAN will use the two platforms at this point, but I would imagine seeing both on Varyag + first couple of domestic carriers. I do see PLAN going toward the USN model in the future and use strictly fix-winged AEW assets.

And finally, they also have the J-15 and JL-9H program going. Due to its range and payload, J-15 could be designed to perform more than just air defense duties of Su-33. Think of Super hornets and all of its different uses in USN.

So, I would say that there are many new weapon systems and technologies developed in China for its naval program. On top of all of the new hardware been developed, the process of training competent carrier operation crew is just as arduous. So far, the only major cooperation agreement they have been able to make is the one with the Brazilian navy. Therefore, China has a lot of stuff to learn over the next 20 years. Varyag will be a training carrier once it goes into service, but it will also be an operational carrier once the sailors accumulate some years of experience. The same will be the case for China's first domestic carriers.

When I look at the entire PLAN modernization, I really think that the carrier program has trailed most of the other programs. Over the past 5 years, one can already see an increasing need for a Chinese blue water fleet with its increasing energy security concerns from Africa/Middle East + its dependence on world commerce + the number of Chinese nationals working in African/Middle Eastern/Pacific Island countries. China currently gets a free ride from US Navy for energy security and safety of its merchant ships, but it really has no trust in USN. A good number of Chinese people in and outside of the military thinks that US is trying to hold China down. And when one looks at the extremely vocal China threat group in Washington, it's easy to see why they would get this view. So, I think that even though China already has a clear need for a carrier, this program has trailed the rest of PLAN modernization for numerous reasons. And I think that as China becomes even more dependent on world commerce in the coming years, the need for a blue water fleet will become more apparent (even if it will make many neighbours uncomfortable). On top of that, China sees East Asia and Southeast Asia as its backyard and wants to become the big dog here that keeps order. It cannot do so with a green water fleet. You are seeing more comments/actions from China in this direction, even though they will not say this openly.

One part I think David Axe was really wrong on was the assertion that Varyag will be defenseless. The PLAN naval modernization/expansion have been going on for the past 15 years. If anything, PLAN already has the necessary escorts for the first carrier and is in the process of building many more advanced escorts as shown in the photos below. And the recent Gulf of Aden missions provided PLAN with an opportunity to try these ships out for long periods in blue waters, so they will be ready by the time Varyag becomes operational.
The first three photos are the 3rd, 4th and 5th 052Cs currently under construction in JN shipyard

This next photo is the 6th 054A currently under construction in the HD shipyard

And here is the 6th 054A from HP shipyard that just got launched.

The other importantly part of China's increased blue water ambitions is the need for oversea "places" that PLAN can dock in the future for supplies. Here is a Jamestown article on the issue of logistical supply places that are emerging from the Gulf of Aden missions. Now, I do think that China will need a couple of oversea naval bases in the future to protect its commerce and such, but it is not at that point yet.

Most recently after the Osama killing, a lot of noises came out of Pakistan asking China to have a naval base in Gwadar. Here is an Asia Times article on the subject of Gwadar naval bases. You can see that China is punting on this issue right now, because it does not make sense for China to have a base there at the moment.

At the same time, I did find this other article regarding recent meeting between China and Burma to be far more interesting.

According to official sources in Naypyidaw, Chinese officials have repeatedly raised the issue of mobilizing its naval forces in Burmese territorial waters in recent months amid the superpower's increasing interests in the country, most notably the Sino-Burmese oil and gas pipelines, and the Chinese navy's activities in the Indian Ocean, particularly patrolling against Somali pirates.

Chinese officials are not suggesting a Chinese navy base in Burma, but having the permission to dock their warships at Burma's ports while they are patrolling the Indian Ocean and Somalia, said a source who spoke on condition of anonymity. The issue is still under discussion.

However, Burmese military sources have said they believe that China is more concerned about protecting the strategic port of Kyaukpyu, a multi-billion project that Beijing financed.

After the pipelines are finished in 2013, they are expected to have the capacity to transfer to Yunnan Province more than 80 percent of China's imported oil from the Middle East and Africa, as well as Chinese-purchased natural gas from Burma's Shwe Gas Field.

Shwe Field is currently Burma's largest gas reserve with an estimated 7.0 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. It was discovered in 2004 and is likely to be operational by 2013. The Burmese regime chose to sell the natural gas from Shwe Offshore Field to China over another energy-hungry neighbor, India, in 2007, a move that consolidated the junta's position as a valued ally of Beijing.

The pipeline project includes upgrading the airport on Ramree Island where Kyaukpyu is located. Residents of Ramree Island said that they have seen not only Chinese workers, but also Chinese military personnel in recent years on the island.

Chinese interests include the protection of oil tankers. Beijing has sent warships to Somali waters in the past two years, a maneuver that marked the superpower's the first ever naval mobilization outside the Pacific Ocean.

Returning from a counter-piracy operation in the Indian Ocean in August 2010, two warships, the Guangzhou and the Chaohu, docked at Thilawa Port, near Rangoon, for a five-day visit. Burmese and Chinese state media reported at the time.

From this article, you can see all of the Chinese energy and economic interest in this region and why China would want to have a blue water navy that can operate in this region. When one look at the narrow Strait of Malacca where much of China's energy and commerce shipping flows through, it becomes clear why China would also want to build an energy pipeline that would bypass that. In that region, China would not only be under the mercy of USN, but also under the mercy or threat of Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. That is quite a scary thought for the supposedly next super-power of the world. In the increasingly bitter confrontations between China and its neighbors over South China Sea, I think China will need to get back to building trusting relations with its southern neighbors while also continue to build an effective blue water navy.

So as Varyag is about to start sea trials, we see the shift of a nation from enclosed and poor to more prosperous and reliant on the world. The need for a blue water navy comes from China's need to protect its oversea interests + its people's desires for a strong nation. China will not become a blue water navy overnight, but would need years to develop competent carrier operations. It stills has a long way to go before it can be mentioned in the same breath to the Seventh Fleet. That's a scary thought for a nation that's more dependent than any other nations for safe and open sea lanes. As we observe the formation of China's blue water ambitions, I hope more people see if from this view point rather than the view point that China is about to take over the world.


Bo said...

David Axe is a borderline crackpot still living in his mom's basement in Florida.

John said...

Although many nations operate flattop, but not many nations can build the whole system. Except China, only the US, Russia and France can build the flattop, the plane, etc. the whole system; but even that their production capacities is relative small compare with China. China’s production capacity is the one that everybody worries about. USA is a hegemony, it only has tools no allies, USA will knock down anyone threaten its hegemony regardless friend or foe.

Will that mysterious fix-winged naval AEW image be ZDK03?

The US and its ‘allies’ only have themselves to blame for China’s self-sufficient MIC, they have been frustrating China’s needs for help from them time and again. It is their arrogance and ignorance force China to become a potent competitor that might overrun them one day.

knotanam said...

Aircraft carriers are to the 21st century as Battleships are to the 20th century. That is they are useful diplomatic tools. But on their way out as useful high-intensity conflict platforms. They are easy to see, easy to hit, giant, lumbering, slow targets that cost a lot to build and one missile to kill.

It is only a matter of time before ASBM deployment becomes widespread by a number of nations. Land based missiles systems can be deployed at a fraction of the price of sea-based aviation platforms. Anyone with minimal space-launch capability can deploy satellites to track Carrier group movements.

Submarines can also deploy conventional ballistic missiles that can hit carriers from thousands of miles away. And because you can deploy a heck of a lot more missiles on land and in submarines than any amount carriers that you can have at sea. And hide the former much more effectively. You can overwhelm any defensive systems of a carrier group with both speed and number. All at a much lower price.

For the next decade, China should look to 4-things to build its naval capacity. submarines, missiles, satellites and drones. Not these antiquated "flattops" that belong in a museum. It would have been smarter to have turned the Vagyar into a casinoship as they said they would and used the tax revenues to build a better submarine instead.

Better yet, lower taxes, invest in people to people exchange with ROC, japan and the US to reduce tension and chances of conflict. In a globalized corporate world Economy is King.

John said...

Is this the mysterious fix-winged naval AEW?, Y-8 AEW Gallery.

NotBill said...

IMHO I believe there are at least reasons why US CVN are very beneficial just as they are today:
10. – You have to decide if the retaliation on your major industries and loss of using any of your ports is worth a billion dollar hit on the US.
9. – Establishing open-season and loss of all your naval assets.
8. – If you have no naval or air assets, catching a CV in a position for you to strike and cause damage is next to impossible.
7. – During times diplomatic strife USCBG will be exercising caution around your assets putting all your steps and countersteps under analysis and review.
6. – You have to consider the cost and resultant vulnerabilities of having to replace an extremely large percentage of your potent armed forces.
5. – Your enemies will become our friends and receive the latest in arms and support for keeping you well occupied and your head down.
4. – We have a demonstrated history for taking massive hits and delivering a beating several times what we received. Win or Lose.
3. – Whoever you are, personally who kicked off this “mess,” You definitely, maybe some of your family members, and a # of iinnocents will pay the ultimate price
2. – There’s no-way you can hit a CV and be anonymous.
1. – Failure is not an option…if you miss…well you know what Mister T says…

That being said...I think if anyone looks at armed economies, they should see an appropriate reason for those economies being armed.

My humble .02

John said...

@ Knotanam,
China seems the only nation has ASBM capability in the foreseeable future, yet she is still building flattops, so your gloomy prediction for the future of flattops may be premature. For China to maintain law and order in China Seas, flattops can do the job a lot more effectively and economically. Of course, presence is a very important factor for building flattops.

Here is an objective analysis about the US. United States is no longer a country “don’t ask what the nation can do for you, only ask what you can do for the nation.” US people are selfish, greedy and mindful of entitlement; they all want to be the next Donald Trump without working for it, that’s why they are borrowing to live in that fantasy; they even won’t lift a finger to help their compatriots who are suffering the twisters’ wrath.

Asking US people to give up their comfortable life for toxic mushroom clouds in their backyards because collateral damages thousands miles away, the US people will stare blank.

So far, the only hit the US got at home was 9/11, a small terrorist mischief, but the US went hysteria against helpless nations. While in the two meaningful contests in Asia, the US' performance was disappointing. People said if US force has less than 20:1 advantage, they would lose.

USA is master chef of pigs breakfast; and the world knows the US only has tools no allies, once the usefulness of a tool is done, selling the tool is American(US)’s way of life.

knotanam said...

@ NotBill,

You misunderstand. This proposed non-carrier naval force is not designed to shoot first. Because it does NOT offer any advantage to sneak attack or shoot first. Please note that all the systems in such a navy are designed to hide and survive first attacks, it is essentially an area denial + retaliation based-force and not an offensive and surprise attack-based force. And thus defensive in nature. Unlike the Carrier force, which has to shoot first to gain advantage -- and by definition an attack (and especially surprise attack)-oriented force.

Of course, a shooting war is stupid and I agree with you that any retaliation from the US would be overwhelming. China is not likely to get suckered into a shooting war with the US in the Pacific. However, if hypothetically speaking, that all things being equal, that another country also spends a trillion dollars a year on arms to compete with the US militarily, which China does NOT, btw. Then it would be much better to invest in ASBM, satellites, submarines and drones than Carriers. And even better than that, to avoid conflict all together, by refusing to play the "blue water navy" game all together and build one's economy instead.

knotanam said...

ps. @ John

You are absolutely right in that CV's still has policing and diplomatic (re: power projection) uses. In another word - park your carrier 50-miles off anyones coast and intimidate them into doing what you want - purposes.

But I personally think given China's international position, it is a dangerous game to play. And in the long-run gun-boat diplomacy is not the most effective way to win friends. Much better to have a credible conventional retaliatory force to deter aggression than walking around carrying a big stick.

That is not to say that don't have blue water surface vessels -- Do -- But cheap ones that don't make others nervous. That means small amphibious carriers, cruisers and destroyers.

willytan1 said...

Finally, China is about to get it's first aircraft carrier.
China should actually have started building carriers 10years ago.
let's look at a few points:
1)China is the only member of the United Nations security council without a carrier.
2)Even India has a 40,000 ton carrier under construction in a local yard. This is to be followed by a 70000 ton carrier shortly after.
3)Countries like Japan,Korea and Australia have helicopter carriers in service or under construction, which when equiped with VSTOL aircraft like the F-35 would make them real carriers with a powerful strike capability.

The indigineous carrier supposed to be under construction in Shanghai is of great significance. The completion of this locally made carrier will mean China has truly joined the carrier club. Lets just hope it is a CATOBAR design.

John said...

China has followed Deng’s idea of “leave disputes aside and co-develop the area first” for a long time; with the US’ backing the SE nations and Japan see China’s conciliatory approach as weakness, so they take advantage on China. After long and hard thinking, China decided a little bit of force was needed in the ingredients of persuasion. I guess China calculated 3 or 4 carriers would be needed for the persuasion to be effective due to the US factor, as well as to make the production and operation of those toys cost effective.

In Geopolitics and Realpolitik, friends is a luxurious term, even Singapore prefers USA and is wary of China, it is a delusion to win friends among China’s surrounding nations. China will have friends unless China can deep integrate its surrounding nations like the US has deep integrated her surrounding nations.

I believe what you explained to NotBill is correct, it seems China’s military is defensive in nature even with those carriers.

Feng said...

don't overrate the so called helo carriers equipping with F-35B. First, they are not designed to be real carrier missions, so just because they can possibly carry a few F-35s, that does not mean it makes sense to do so. Secondly, nobody knows what the future prospects of F-35B are. It could easily get canned in the next set of defence budgets.

Aircraft carriers are not going away any time soon and we should not think that the so called ASBM threat make them obsolete.

poh said...

i can see that China will become the next super power in the next 5 year, and the military is going to big and big. that is threat to USA that their think their is only super power in the world. so go for it China, you have me support

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