The official Chinese news agency announced late yesterday that the country’s first aircraft carrier has begun initial sea trials, in a move that will send shockwaves throughout the Pacific.
For more news and information on the swiftly-changing defense industry, please sign up for the Breaking Defense newsletter. You can also catch us on Twitter @BreakingDefense.
The sea trials were preceded by a July 28 story in the official Chinese press arguing that, “China is surrounded by foreign aircraft carriers and other large-tonnage warships cruising in the waters it faces.
“Currently, China is the only nation among five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council that does not have an active-service aircraft carrier,” the story said. If the point was missed by anyone, Xinhua then quoted an admiral about the U.S. carriers.
“The U.S. operates 11 carrier battlegroups and has deployed six of them to the Pacific region,” said Real Admiral Yin Zhuo, director of the Expert Consultation Committee of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy.
And then there are China’s neighbors such as India and Russia that have carriers. And, oh by the way, Japan and Korea own “large-tonnage warships which could be used as aircraft carriers depending on if they can purchase the vertical landing F-35B jets, Yin said.”
So China is surrounded by states that own carriers or can deploy those large warships. Therefore, no one should be surprised that China needs one — or more.
The Xinhua story announcing the sea trails said the carrier “will continue refit and test work” on its return from sea. [It is important to note that China did not build this ship from the keel up. They bought an unfinished Soviet carrier they modified and finished.]
Most of America’s Chinese military analysts are on vacation right now but we managed to track down one of the deans of the clan, the Heritage Foundation’s Dean Cheng, to shed light on what all this means.
“To begin with, it is more than a little ironic that, even as the PLAN was preparing for sea trials for its navy, the Chinese government was tut-tutting the US Government for spending too much on defense. One is tempted to suggest that the Chinese would like nothing better than for the US to cut back on defense, and give it even more opportunity to catch up,” Cheng wrote in an email.
But the new carrier is not ready for prime time yet “These are sea trials. They’ve yet to practice landing or taking off from the ship, and you’d want to do a fair amount of practice before embarking an air group (15-20 aircraft in the case of the Varyag/ShiLang) and actually conducting routine flight operations. So, we should not be fearing a Midway or Jutland-style clash of fleets just yet,” he wrote.
But the trials do “reinforce the message that Beijing is intent on creating a blue-water navy, in a step-by-step, steady process.”
Once deployed with a full complement of aircraft, China “will be the only East Asian navy with anything like a full-deck carrier.”
That is likely to lead to “a significant rise in tensions over the South China Sea, as the carrier provides the PLA with the ability to project an airpower bubble beyond the limits of land-based airpower. For an intervention in the Spratlys, that could be significant.”
And Cheng pointed to the fact that many outside analysts has been caught with their pants down on this one. “Finally, this should once again humble us regarding predictions about what and when the Chinese will do things. Even as General Chen Bingde was officially acknowledging the existence of the carrier program (not that too many people doubted it, aside from some know-it-alls who had claimed it would be a casino), there were still some who argued that it would be months before sea trials could begin,” he wrote. “But, like the J-20 and the anti-ship ballistic missile, the Chinese seem to have the ability to deploy systems at a pace that confounds the naysayers.”