Friday, December 17, 2010

Official Evidence Cited: China Building Aircraft Carrier

Asahi Shimbun is citing an official report published by the State Oceanic Administration that says Chinese leaders decided last year to back plans to build China's first aircraft carrier. Despite numerous official references in the past, this would represent the first official validation of an aircraft carrier construction effort. The report comes with details:

Chinese military sources said initial plans had called for launching a conventional powered carrier with a displacement of between 50,000 and 60,000 tons in 2015. But, with construction progressing quickly, the launch of the first Chinese-made aircraft carrier now appears to be set for 2014.

Construction has already begun at six military-affiliated companies and research institutes in Shanghai and other locations.

The plan calls for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to be launched by around 2020.

Meanwhile, the Varyag, a Soviet-era Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier bought from the Ukraine, is undergoing repairs in the northeastern port of Dalian and is expected to be pressed into service as a training vessel from 2012.
The report appears to be about more than aircraft carriers though, as the Asahi Shimbun article goes on to explain:
The report, written by a research institute affiliated to the State Oceanic Administration, sketches a strategy for expanding the reach of Chinese sea power and strengthening its ability to protect its maritime interests.

As part of that strategy, the report says, the Chinese military "came out in 2009 with a vision and plan to construct aircraft carriers."

It also maps out a longer-term drive to build China into a mid-level maritime power by about 2020, able to counter challenges and threats at sea.

The revelation that construction has begun on domestically developed Chinese aircraft carriers is certainly not shocking, indeed it would be more shocking if the Chinese had not already begun construction. I am also not surprised to hear the first aircraft carrier could be launched in 2014, earlier than expected. The thing is, we see evidence every year of the good health in the Chinese shipbuilding industry producing vessels at a rate faster than expectations, so why would be surprised that China is capable of producing aircraft carriers faster than expected too.

I expect the first pair of conventional aircraft carriers to be very similar to Varyag, because history tells us China usually starts ship classes by copying what others have already done before modifications are introduced that are more Chinese in character.

If we observe the PLA Navy growth in terms of 5 year plans, then in the tenth five-year plan (2001-2005) we saw China develop conventional submarines and experiment with surface combatant classes. In the eleventh five-year plan (2006-2010) we saw China continue building conventional submarines, also build nuclear submarines, build a large number of coastal missile vessels (Type 022), build coastal maritime patrol vessels, expand construction of the surface combatants with 10 frigates and more destroyers, build a single amphibious vessel, and begin modernization of Varyag.

In the twelfth five-year plan (2011-2015) we can expect steady construction of conventional and nuclear submarines, more coastal combat vessels, a large block of maritime patrol vessels, steady construction of frigate sized surface combatants, steady construction of amphibious vessels, and now steady construction of aircraft carriers. In other words, we should expect steady construction where either steady construction already existed or where experimentation was conducted during the previous five-year plan. That also means we should be watching for new classes, likely small builds of larger destroyer and cruiser sized surface combatants and potentially an LPH/LPD type amphibious vessel, which would represent experimentation in classes that we will not see reach steady construction until the thirteenth five-year plan (2016-2020).

China has a remarkably healthy shipbuilding industry that keeps construction costs much lower than the US, and fixed labor costs also keep construction costs very low. That will allow China to get at least twice, and potentially four or five times more, the number of vessels per year than the United States. It is remarkable to me that the US is even considering cutting the 25 Coast Guard Offshore Patrol Cutters when China plans to build 30 maritime law enforcement vessels of similar size in the next 5 years alone. The reality though is that because the health of the Chinese shipbuilding industry is so much better than the shipbuilding industry of the United States right now, an industry that could really use General Motors level attention by the current administration btw, China is able to procure the same vessel types for three or four times less than we can.

Aircraft carriers represent incredible investments of state treasure, so this undertaking by China is not trivial. It will be worth watching to observe what the steady construction rate for other vessels becomes as China builds aircraft carriers. Will we see what we have been seeing? For example, will the steady average annual rate of construction continue to at minimum be 12 FACs, 2 SSKs, 1 SSN or SSBN, 2 FFGs, 1 DDG, 1 LP(X), and now 1/2 CV/CVN per year?

Over a five year plan that represents 60 FACs, 10 SSKs, 5 SSN/SSBNs, 10 FFGs, 5 DDGs, 5 LP(X)s, and 2 CVs for a total of 37 major and 60 minor combat vessels. Over the same period the US is planning 1 CVN, 10 SSNs, 8 DDG-51s, 18 LCS, 1 LPD-17, and 1 LHA(R) for a total of 21 major combatants and 18 minor combatants. In the near term China can and likely will nearly double our major surface combatant output and at least triple our minor combat vessel output.

Clearly a naval buildup competition to match China is a long term losing proposition, so we need to be very smart about what we are doing if we believe there is some necessity for concern. It starts with stabling industry - meaning the dual purchase LCS plan to add workforce stability in the shipbuilding sector as a whole, but also putting some serious focus onto our larger surface combatant force and finding ways to responsibly add value to our national aircraft carrier, amphibious vessel, and littoral combat ship investments.

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