China’s Carrier and Other Sources of American Hysteria
The onset of strategic paranoia — the vigil kept by those at the top of the heap who regard any development as the beginning of the end — is a sure sign the beginning of the end has, indeed, occurred. Watch carefully for paranoia’s symptoms as the United States reacts to China’s decision to confirm what has been blatantly obvious for at least a decade now: Beijing plans to relaunch a Soviet-era relic, the never-completed medium-carrier Varyag, as the very first aircraft carrier in the Chinese fleet.
In the era of Google Earth (and, frankly, given China’s mistreatment of Google), the launching of a Chinese aircraft carrier was going to be a hard secret to keep.
The “company” that purchased the carrier from Russia in 1998 claimed the idea was to dock it in Macao and turn it into a floating casino. Right…
Yet the impending launch of a Chinese aircraft carrier should hardly cause palpitations in Washington. The Varyag-class, even after the extensive refit China has mounted, falls far short of anything operated by the U.S. Navy. The U.S. currently operates 11 super carriers, most of the Nimitz class, not to mention a decent collection of slightly older Forrestal and Kitty Hawk vessels, which have been retired but all of which put the Varyags to shame.
More to the point, the aircraft carrier — whatever its capabilities — hardly fits China’s military strategy, which focuses on area denial. China has made great strides in deploying sophisticated anti-ship missiles that could conceivably threaten an American carrier. As the U.S. Naval Institute has been reporting for years, American Seventh Fleet commanders worry far more about Chinese missile developments than any challenge from China’s fleet. Anyone imagining that China’s naval military academies are war-gaming Midway-like scenarios is completely paranoid. Indeed, the city of Newport, Rhode Island, home to the decommissioned 1950s-era giants USS Forrestal and USS Saratoga, has more potential naval power air power lying around dormant than China, Russia and India combined.
Decommissioned USS Saratoga (foreground) and USS Forrestal in Newport, RI.
If more perspective is necessary, take a look at this useful chart from my old colleagues at the BBC. In fact, with the exception of the French Charles de Gaulle, a nuclear-powered carrier which has its own problems, there isn’t a single vessel listed below that can conduct sustained combat operations.The rest of these ships (including a Spanish carrier the BBC mysteriously omits) are far smaller, less capable vessels than their U.S. counterparts. Many are suited only to operate helicopters and V/STOL aircraft, a serious disadvantage in terms of performance and flexibility. Age is another issue: India’s carrier, for instance, was built for the Royal Navy in World War II.
Of course, anything involving China these days elicits an unreasonable response in Washington. My guess is that the coming days will bring two distinct flavors: a hysterical, “Obama’s selling-us-down-the-river” campaign cycle response from GOP no-nothings, and a more carefully calibrated note of “concern” from the defense community, who will inevitably view the presence of a Chinese carrier as an opportunity to shore up procurement budgets. Already, the Navy has been on the offensive, guarding its far-flung bases against the budget-cutting instincts of outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Northrup-Grumman and a legion of subcontractors, too, will welcome the Chinese flattop. The company’s Newport News shipyard is busy building the first of the newest class of supercarriers, the $5.1 billion USS Gerald R. Ford, in Virginia. As a class, its more of an incremental modernization of the Nimitz class than a leap forward — much the same compliment of aircraft, a slightly reconfigured deck, new catapult systems and improvements in various defensive weapons. Compared to a 30 year-old Soviet hulk, though, its quite an awesome weapon.
Whether there will be many more “Ford” class ships is a debate that needs to be had. Advances in pilotless aircraft raise real questions about the wisdom of putting 90 combat aircraft on a ship. Advances in anti-shipping missiles raise survivability questions for the great carriers, as do the new generation of nearly supersonic torpedoes (I kid you not).
These, all, are valuable debates. So, too, are questions about the extent to which post-war restrictions on Japan’s navy should stay in place. For that matter, if you’re determined to fret about the Chinese, how about worrying about their true weapon – the sovereign wealth funds that hold potentially destabilizing percentage of U.S. national debt. One has to wonder whether China would prefer us to keep overspending on defense, or not?
Bottom line: Don’t get worked up about the alleged “blue water navy” China is building. Partisans of one kind or another may deploy Red Scare tactics about the carrier, but there are an awful lot of better things for Americans to worry about.
3 Responses to “China’s Carrier and Other Sources of American Hysteria”
This carrier, no matter how anachronistic, will be only the first. China's definition of protecting the motherland extends to islands all over the South China Sea which are even now the subject of disputes and naval games of chicken. The Chinese knack for reverse-engineering has produced rapid improvements in its aerospace capabilities and there is every reason to believe that such will be the case with the Navy. The real issue here is not whether this carrier is a threat to the US, but how vigorously the US will respond when it is used to intimidate smaller, recalcitrant states with territorial claims that are contested by China.
[...] China’s Carrier and Other Sources of American Hysteria – “The onset of strategic paranoia — the vigil kept by those at the top of the heap who regard any development as the beginning of the end — is a sure sign the beginning of the end has, indeed, occurred. Watch carefully for paranoia’s symptoms as the United States reacts to China’s decision to confirm what has been blatantly obvious for at least a decade now: Beijing plans to relaunch a Soviet-era relic, the never-completed medium-carrier Varyag, as the very first aircraft carrier in the Chinese fleet.“ [...]
Even with all the advancements, the Chinese navy is still a long way from being able to challenge their US counterparts. It would be a massive waste of money and mountains of perfectly good steel if they did.