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When the commander of the Chinese navy, Admiral Liu Huaqing, discussed the need for aircraft carriers in 1986, he argued that Beijing should acquire them to “safeguard the country’s maritime interests, including the recovery of the Nansha.” [Spratly Islands] and the reunification of Taiwan ”.
Thirty-five years later, the People’s Liberation Army Navy appears to be on a fast track to making Liu’s dream come true. China has two aircraft carriers in service and, as satellite images show, a third is nearing completion at a Shanghai shipyard.
The most recent aircraft carrier, which could be in the water as early as this year, is the first that China has designed and built on its own. It will also be the first ship of its kind to come close to American supercarriers: at 318 m in length, she is only 14 meters shorter than the most advanced American Ford-class carrier. Like the Ford class, it is expected to feature electromagnetically powered catapults for launching fighters.
But military experts postulate that Beijing’s pursuit of a naval force centered on such massive ships leaves it vulnerable to the same threat China is mounting against the US Navy in Asia: missiles that can strike moving aircraft carriers. or the large bases that they need, which makes it dangerous for them to access or move freely in certain waters.
“There is no doubt in my mind that China will end up with at least six aircraft carriers,” said Bernard Cole, a retired US naval officer and author of an authoritative book on the PLAN. “I don’t mind, because I’m convinced that aircraft carriers are outdated, best described as large underwater targets. I think a better way to put air power at sea is to use unmanned drones. “
Over the past decade, China has begun to undermine the United States’ maritime hegemony in the region with anti-access and area denial (A2 / AD) weapons, including the Dongfeng-21D, the anti-ballistic missile. – ship nicknamed the “aircraft carrier killer”.
As Washington – which has 11 aircraft carriers – adjusts its global military posture from a focus on fighting insurgencies in the Middle East to a focus on China, US experts argue it can, along with its allies in Asia, use A2 / AD against China as well.
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments advised in a study that the United States should use land-based precision strike networks and the resources of its allies to “threaten the straits that Chinese merchant and warships must pass through to leave the United States. East and South China Seas ”.
The shallow seas off the coast of China are surrounded by a chain of large islands including Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines – the three allies or partners of the United States. It doesn’t matter if Chinese Navy ships cross the Miyako Strait between the Japanese island of Okinawa and Taiwan, or the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippine island of Luzon, they are within range of ground missiles.
“The United States itself may not do much in terms of counter-A2 / AD against Chinese naval assets, but it will ask its allies to step up their efforts to do so,” Lin said. Ying-yu, PLA expert at National. Chung Cheng University in Taiwan.
The threat is unlikely to prevent China from deploying its nascent carrier force.
“The PLA Navy. . . will continue to deploy, day in and day out, surface warships that provide the nation with capabilities for diplomacy, peacetime presence, protection of sea lanes, crisis response and, in its near seas, deterrence Retired Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt, former US Navy Commander, wrote in a recent book on the Chinese Navy.
In a recent example, one of two Chinese operational aircraft carriers maneuvered in the South China Sea while HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed, in a warning to the newest British aircraft carrier not to approach too close to the territory claimed by China.
But as Beijing’s economic interests expand around the world, it may need to deploy carriers further and further from its shores. McDevitt argued that anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden, where PLAN ships would operate alone in waters where the airspace is dominated by the United States or India, heightened the importance to Beijing air cover for remote operations that may involve combat.
In a conflict with the United States, such deployments would be problematic. Sheu Jyh-shyang, a researcher at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a think tank funded by the Taiwan Ministry of Defense, said, “The fleet of aircraft carriers they are building now cannot reach the Pacific without entering the range of missiles of the allies of the United States.