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CV Aircraft Carriers - Background

Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie was quoted in state media in March 2009 saying China no longer wanted to be the only major global power without an aircraft carrier. China will not remain the world's only major nation without an aircraft carrier indefinitely, state press 23 March 2009 cited the nation's defense minister as telling his Japanese counterpart. Liang Guanglie made the remarks to visiting Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada on Friday, the Oriental Morning Post said, in discussions that took place after a recent spike in tension in the South China Sea. "Among the big nations only China does not have an aircraft carrier. China cannot be without an aircraft carrier forever," the paper quoted Liang as saying, citing Japanese official sources. "China's navy is currently rather weak, we need to develop an aircraft carrier." Liang's comment is the highest-level recent confirmation that China aims to acquire an aircraft carrier, a sophisticated piece of military hardware that can be used to project power far beyond a nation's shores.

On 23 December 2008 Xinhua, China's official news agency, reported that China's Ministry of National Defense had stated that aircraft carriers are "a reflection of a nation's comprehensive power" and were needed to meet the demands of a country's navy. The Chinese government would seriously consider "relevant issues" with "factors in every aspects" on building its first ever aircraft carrier, said spokesman Huang Xueping when responding to a question at a press conference on whether it was a good opportunity at present to build China's aircraft carrier. "China has a long coastline and the sacred duty of China's armed forces is to safeguard the country's marine safety and sovereignty over coastal areas and territorial seas," he said.

In November 2008 the Director of the Ministry of National Defense, Foreign Affairs Office, Major General Qian Lihua, said that "having an aircraft carrier is the dream of any great military power," and "the question is not whether you have an aircraft carrier, but what you do with your aircraft carrier."

The question of China's plans to build aircraft carriers are important for several reasons. Many other countries have aircraft carriers, and little thought is given to Brazil's aircraft carrier, or Argentina's aircraft carrier, when it had one. Unlike other major maritime powers, Japan does not have aircraft carriers, and the Japanese government has regarded this class of ships as being an "offensive" weapon precluded by Japan's peace constitution. Should China acquire aircraft carriers, Japan might reconsider this position, and this might mark the start of a larger reconsideration of Japan's military posture. The United States has twice as many aircraft carriers as the rest of humanity combined, each of which is larger than other country's carriers. China's acquisition of aircraft carriers might be seen as a step towards challenging American preeminence on the high seas. At a minimum, it would mark the acquisition of a power projection capability that would move further afield than the Taiwan scenario, and into the South China Sea and beyond.

China, following the Cold War, continued to have very little in the way of credible power-projection capabilities, though China could project military forces superior to those that Southeast Asian countries could deploy to the South China Sea. The PLA Navy had studied the acquisition of an aircraft carrier beginning in the mid-1980s, followed by persistant reports that China has planned to launch a 40,000 ton class aircraft carrier by 2010, though these reports remained unsubstantiated and appeared to based on woefully inadequate analysis and information.

While some in the Navy had lobbied for a carrier for many years, their proposals were continually overruled by the Central Military Commission. This decision could have been motivated by a desire not to be seen to be adding a major new capability to China's maritime forces, with consequent adverse regional reaction. From a purely military perspective, a Chinese aircraft carrier would be expensive to operate, and carrier would be vulnerable to attack by aircraft, fast surface vessels and submarines. An aircraft carrier could enhance China's ability to lay claim to the islands and coral atolls of the South China Sea, an area potentially rich in oil and other resources. An aircraft carrier would make a potent political and diplomatic statement, potentially creating a major change in the strategic balance in East Asia.

In 1992, the Chinese authorities reportedly authorized a program for studying the development of an aircraft carrier. Chinese leaders at various levels did extensive feasibility studies on this project since then. In 1993, senior leaders of the Chinese Navy announced that China would start developing an aircraft carrier. In January 1993, Chinese political leaders decided to step up their carrier program and allocated several billion dollars for the project. At that time, it was believed that China had planned to finish the first aircraft carrier by 2000, but the plan was delayed repeatedly due to lack of carrier technology. Eventually it was decided to advance the carrier program in two stages.

During the first stage, China proceeded to buy several scrapped carriers from overseas in order to study the parts. China had previously pursued similar policies both in defense and other industries. Between 1985 and 2002, Chinese firms purchased a number of vessels, for ostensibly for a variety of purposes. These included for amusement parks, hotels, scrap metal, as well as likely analysis of design and other developmental purposes. China has a long history of aquiring technology for reverse engineering purposes. Of the vessels, the Varyag, an ex-Soviet carrier, contruction of which was never completed, and sold by Ukraine to what appeared to be a Chinese front company in 1998, has been the source of the greatest speculation. After arriving in Dalian, the hull was placed in drydock for a few months and painted in PLAN colors. Subsequently the hull was moored at a cargo warf. Minor work was reported to have been conducted on the hull, delivered without engines or any other equipment, between 2005 and 2008. However, as of August 2008, there was no visible work being done to make the hull seaworthy. Several years of highly visible construction activity, to include the installation of a propulsion plant, would be required to make this hull seaworthy.

Phase 2 centered on the domestic construction of a carrier by China. China appeared to have chosen to build a Chinese aircraft carrier, rather than purchasing one off-the-shelf. Although China's long-term goal was to acquire one or more aircraft carriers and it had an active program to develop a design, it remained unclear whether Beijing had reached a firm decision on the kind of carrier it would have, given budget constraints and naval funding priorities. Since the first reports of Chinese carrier aspirations in the 1980s and 1990s, various sources have claimed that China was building everything from purely training vessels to super-carriers similar to US Navy types.

In June 2005 Zhang Guangqin, the top official overseeing the country's burgeoning shipbuilding industry, denied that China was assembling an aircraft carrier in Shanghai. "I can say it clearly that there's no such thing at all," said Zhang, the vice-minister at the Commission of Science Technology and Industry for National Defense, at a news briefing in Beijing. "As to building aircraft carrier or not, related governmental departments will take all factors in consideration."

In October 2006 Lieutenant-General Wang Zhiyuan, Vice Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee in the PLA's General Armament Department stated: "The Chinese army will study how to manufacture aircraft carriers so that we can develop our own. aircraft carriers are indispensable if we want to protect our interests in the oceans." Russian press has reported Chinese interest in acquiring Russian Su-33 carrier-borne fighters, a variant of the Su-27 already transferred to China. In October 2006 a Russian press report suggested early-stage negotiations were underway for China to purchase up to 50 such aircraft at a cost of $2.5 billion. However, there has been no subsequent discussion of such a deal.

In March 2007 a Chinese Admiral of the PLAN was quoted as saying that the Chinese shipbuilding industry was actively conducting R&D in aircraft carrier construction and could be ready to build such a vessel by 2010.

The 2008 "Military Power of the People's Republic of China" stated "evidence in recent years increasingly suggests China's leaders may be moving forward with an aircraft carrier program. For example, beginning in early 2006 and with the release of China's Eleventh Five Year Plan, PRC-owned media reported on statements from high-level government and military officials on China's intent to build aircraft carriers - including a March 2007 statement from the then-minister of China's Commission on Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND)."

As of 2008, Russia was believed to have been providing assistance for several years in the construction of three Chinese-designed aircraft carriers. Some analysts have thus predicted that China could have an operational carrier by 2015, while others have considered 2020 to be a more realistic timeframe. No confirmed work on any shipbuilding project of any size had been observed or reported as of the end of 2008.

In 2007 Liu, Wei-Wei; Qu, Xiang-Ju of the School of Aeronautics Science and Technology, Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Beijing 100083, China, published a paper "Modeling of carrier-based aircraft ski jump take-off based on tensor" in the Chinese Journal of Aeronautics [v 18 n 4 p 326-335].

The Chinese built a land based replica of the Varyag the Wuhan Naval Research Institute at Yanliang [Janliang] Airfield, which is China's main aviation test facility. As of early 2008 a variant of the Su-27 was being flight tested at this facility.

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