by DAVID AXE
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy is close to deploying its first aircraft carrier, the refurbished Soviet flattop Varyag. Renamed Shi Lang, the 60,000-ton vessel is in the final stages of preparation at the port of Dalian, and could begin training cruises this year or next.
The PLAN is also readying an air wing and escorts for the vessel. The navy possesses two Type 052C destroyers armed with long-range anti-aircraft missiles. Two more of the 7,000-ton warships are under construction. Together, these warships will likely represent the main escorts for Shi Lang and any future carriers. Smaller frigates would accompany the vessels to screen for enemy submarines.
For the air wing, the PLAN is developing J-15 heavy fighters based on the Russian Su-33, as well as “navalizing” the Chinese air force’s J-10 medium-weight fighter. Helicopters and a possible fixed-wing radar plane will round out the roughly 30-strong air wing.
One key element of the PLAN carrier battle group is still missing. U.S., British, French and Russian carrier groups almost never sail without at least one nuclear-powered submarine nearby. The hunter-killer sub scouts ahead of the carrier and her surface escorts. For the U.S. Navy, nuclear attack submarines are the primary defense against enemy submarines — and also a powerful weapon for destroying surface vessels.
It’s not at all clear that the Chinese navy will use its own small nuke boat fleet in the same way. Depending on whether, and how, PLAN submarines lash up with the fleet’s current and future carriers, the Chinese could be badly exposed to attack by rival subs.
In the 1990s, the Chinese navy began a quick buildup that saw the introduction of three new submarines per year, on average. But most have been short-range diesel boats with limited open-water capability. Today the PLAN possesses just two Type 093 nuclear attack subs suited to long-range carrier-escort duty. If Beijing follows through with stated plans to build several nuclear-powered carriers in coming years, the PLAN could wind up with more carriers than it has nuclear submarines to escort them.
Numbers aren’t the only problem the PLAN will face if it follows the world’s other major navies and assigns a submarine to accompany its carriers. The biggest obstacle could be communications. “Observers believe China’s navy continues to exhibit limitations or weaknesses in several areas, including capabilities for sustained operations by larger formations in distant waters,” Ronald O’Rourke, a naval expert with the U.S. Congressional Service, wrote in an April report.
The U.S., U.K., France and Russia spent decades refining different methods for communication with submarines at sea. These include beaming Very Low Frequency to submerged submarines via aircraft, or sending higher-frequency messages when the boat is nearer the surface. Either way, coordinating the movements of surface vessels and submarines in mixed groups can be very, very difficult.
“Due to the limitations of submarine communications technology, the PLAN currently can only exercise relatively limited tactical control over its submarines,” Garth Heckler, Ed Francis and James Mulvenom wrote in the 2007 book China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force. That’s one reason why the Chinese have traditionally allowed its submarines to patrol completely independently — a rare move in a military with otherwise highly-centralized command functions.
It could be years before the PLAN can mix submarines and carriers in coordinated groups. In the meantime, Shi Lang and future flattops could prove highly vulnerable to the submarines of other nations. To compensate, the PLAN could emphasize surface-based Anti-Submarine Warfare by escorting frigates and aerial ASW by helicopters flying from the carrier. But these forces exhibit their own weaknesses.
The absence of a fully effective escort force is just one obstacle among many the PLAN faces as its races to put its first carrier to sea. That means a gap between when the flattop first sails and when its capable of combat deployments. “From the day an aircraft carrier is delivered to when it becomes effective will take quite some time,” U.S. Adm. Gary Roughead said of Shi Lang.