Does China Suffer From a Serious Case of Carrier Envy?

Kenneth Payne’s view on China’s carrier project. The Varyag reconstruction is an attempt at boosting self-esteem, an effort, like much of Chinese policy, to shape what it means to be China, to play with the big boys. Won’t work, he says, “because whichever way you squint at it, it’s still a reverse engineered Soviet hand-me-down.”

“It’s the equivalent of those huge Middle East arms deals for advanced fighter aircraft: flashy, but a bit flaky. It’s the same too as the inter-war Irish army who, in Theo Farrell’s great illustration, structured itself in conventional fashion, with armoured formations, but hardly any armour. Group status and self-esteem are driving military structures in these examples – not power and the need for security. So, is the Varyag a convincing demonstration that carriers remain viable? Hardly – it’s a new investment banker’s first Porsche: a bit tacky and not quite the Aston Martin he’s secretly craving.”

— Greg Grant

  • ArkadyRenko

    I’m sorry, but this article appears to be just slightly disingenuous. All reports indicate that the Varyag is just the first of the Chinese carriers, sort of a test carrier, to begin to teach the Chinese how to operate carriers.

    While I appreciate Defense Tech’s sudden interest in the Navy especially to support the Secretary’s comments, this article misses the point entirely.

    If the carrier was just a prestige operation, why would the Chinese have built a mock up to practice on? If the carrier was just for show, why would the Chinese begin preparing to use it? Carriers take a lot of institutional experience to operate, and the Chinese are working on gaining that institutional experience.

    Instead of seeing the Varyag as a one off item, think of it this way. The Varyag will be the precursor to a Chinese carrier group.

    You see, the Chinese understand something that Gates does not, carriers are not merely naval attack weapons. They represent the ability to claim large parts of the ocean. For China, faced with a long supply line to the Persian gulf and limited bases along the route, Carriers will give them the ability to contest those sea lanes, and possibly control them.

  • Dean

    Gate is right about one thing. We need more small ships, but wrong about everything else. Carrier group are what gives our Navy the punch (everyone else lacks) and to give it up simply because ‘no one else’ has any is just plain stupid.
    He is right about betting more PC (patrol coastal) boats-they very effective at what they do. But again is he wrong about the LCS-which is a complete waste of money. What we need is more ships in the middle, the long forgotten frigate. We need a replacement for frigate not a go fast cruise boast like the LCS.

  • Jeff N

    The reason China is working on Varyag I think is more a matter of having a project to build the industrial infrastructure around. It is the construction assets being built up. China probably doesn’t care if the Varyag ever sails, what they care about is that there personnel have the experiance to work on this type of ship. Varyag will be important for China because it will give them the test bed they need for refining the technology of other subsystems. It will give their naval officers the experiance they’ll need to operate and command carriers.

  • McKellar

    Future Chinese carriers will probably first be used to support operations in Sub-Saharan Africa, whether protecting Chinese interests ashore from wayward dictators or supporting client states in local conflicts-the same sort of things US carriers have be doing since the end of WWII.

  • Jeff N

    The reason China is working on Varyag I think is more a matter of having a project to build the industrial infrastructure around. It is the construction assets being built up. China probably doesn't care if the Varyag ever sails, what they care about is that there personnel have the experiance to work on this type of ship. Varyag will be important for China because it will give them the test bed they need for refining the technology of other subsystems. It will give their naval officers the experiance they'll need to operate and command carriers.

  • John Moore

    Need a carrier in order to attack taiwan from both sides.

  • davec

    What do you mean — Porsche a bit tacky?

  • blight

    Or aerial refuelling. A carrier means you'd need a real blue water navy to protect the carrier. Okinawa is ~400 miles from Taiwan, which puts it above the published combat radius of many American aircraft. A carrier would give you the combat range to strike at Okinawa from the mainland if you really needed to.

  • blight

    Or aerial refuelling. A carrier means you'd need a real blue water navy to protect the carrier. Okinawa is ~400 miles from Taiwan, which puts it above the published combat radius of many American aircraft. A carrier would give you the combat range to strike at Okinawa from the mainland if you really needed to.

  • GMC USCG (RET)

    Gates needs to stop playing politics (sucking up to Obama) and tell the truth. Our navy is shrinking at a fast pace and if we don't counter the Chinese now we'll be fighting them for control of the oil routes and choke points in the world. China is hungry for vital resources (oil, minerals, ores) and only a strong naval presence around those areas of concern will deter the Chinese. Our ship building base is limited, contruction is too long, and repair facilities is limited too. Therefore if we don't start rebuilding the Navy in the very near future our sons and daughters will be paying the price! Does anyone remember Japan's goals in the 1930's and 40's, they look the same as China's today!!! That old saying is correct “History repeats itself”.

  • spatharios

    I don’t see why everyone is upset at Gates. He correctly stated that the F35 had no issues whatseover and would be ready on-time and on-budget! Oh, wait a minute…he lied or is so incompetent as to defy belief. The Chinese, on the other hand, are looking back to their Great Fleet-a veritable nautical world wonder-and see a need for blue-water presence and control. This carrier is certainly a preliminary step toward that end. Moreover, aircraft carriers soak up huge production and resource pools for years-making it even more desirable for their strategic purposes. Tremendous area control and bolstering the stated desire to expand industrial production and technology. We need to take this seriously; it’s only the first step.

  • spatharios

    I don’t see why everyone is upset at Gates. He correctly stated that the F35 had no issues whatseover and would be ready on-time and on-budget! Oh, wait a minute…he lied or is so incompetent as to defy belief. The Chinese, on the other hand, are looking back to their Great Fleet-a veritable nautical world wonder-and see a need for blue-water presence and control. This carrier is certainly a preliminary step toward that end. Moreover, aircraft carriers soak up huge production and resource pools for years-making it even more desirable for their strategic purposes. Tremendous area control and bolstering the stated desire to expand industrial production and technology. We need to take this seriously; it’s only the first step.

  • Will

    The most important in Payne’s piece is in the 2nd sentence - he’s no maritime guru. He says that “the Varyag reconstruction is not wholly the result of a rational assessment of maritime technology and trends, and it won’t do much to boost China’s material power capabilities” without making any rational assessments himself. Or, apparently, without being familiar with anything that Chinese leaders or naval commanders have said or wrote.
    I always get a chuckle out of people who will use the thinnest excuse to change the subject to US domestic politics. Payne never mentions carriers being built by the USA.

  • AAK

    There is of course an element of prestige in the Chinese carrier project. Great powers have carriers, we're a great power, ergo we need carriers.

    But dismissing it as only that is short sighted. They are still useful in projecting power, and still will be in the foreseeable future despite all the supposed carrier killers out there. In 25 years when China decides the Spratley islands (or whatever) are theirs and presses it;s claim, their utility won't be questioned. The Vayrag project is hardly the end of it.

  • ron

    And here we have ole robert gates saying we are going to reduce the size of the navy . infact you would think that maybe he wants us the U.S. to get our butts kicked. I wonder just who he working for???. Us are the Enemy out side our borders.

  • steven

    I agree with those who would view this as an ‘important first step’ for China to develop a viable carrier capability. And I also agree that carriers were, are, and will continue to be a crucial part of any nation’s naval capability if it wishes to be in the business of projecting power outside of it’s own backyard. I also believe that the LACK of a carrier capability has kept China’s ambitions towards Taiwan ‘in check’. With this capability, it’s a new (and much riskier) game for Taiwan to remain independent of mainland China.

  • steven

    I agree with those who would view this as an ‘important first step’ for China to develop a viable carrier capability. And I also agree that carriers were, are, and will continue to be a crucial part of any nation’s naval capability if it wishes to be in the business of projecting power outside of it’s own backyard. I also believe that the LACK of a carrier capability has kept China’s ambitions towards Taiwan ‘in check’. With this capability, it’s a new (and much riskier) game for Taiwan to remain independent of mainland China.

  • steven

    As for history repeating itself… forget about 1930’s Japan vs. modern-day China. The much more obvious (and concerning) parallel in history is right here at home. ‘Welcome Back Carter’ is being played as a daily re-run in the Obama administration. Explosive growth of government, re-fashioning the military into something more ‘practical’ (ie. cost-cutting), and the eventual decline of our ability to project a formidable force presence anywhere on the globe when required. Fast forward a few years and it’s the 1970’s all over again. But, hey… it’ll be different this time because we’re smarter now! :-/

  • steven

    As for history repeating itself… forget about 1930’s Japan vs. modern-day China. The much more obvious (and concerning) parallel in history is right here at home. ‘Welcome Back Carter’ is being played as a daily re-run in the Obama administration. Explosive growth of government, re-fashioning the military into something more ‘practical’ (ie. cost-cutting), and the eventual decline of our ability to project a formidable force presence anywhere on the globe when required. Fast forward a few years and it’s the 1970’s all over again. But, hey… it’ll be different this time because we’re smarter now! :-/

  • JAV

    Maybe Gates will sell them a couple of ours, since he doesn’t think we need them anymore and China isn’t a threat. (Sarcasm off)

  • Dimitar

    What Gates is definitely wrong at, is that a Porsche is inferior to an Ostin Martin.

  • JSCS

    gmanaz, China is not a military dictatorship? What kind of dictatorship would you call it then? Community based? Have we heard lately from the opposition party?

  • RjA

    Just another example of someone (Grant) underestimating our enemies.

  • JAV

    Maybe Gates will sell them a couple of ours, since he doesn't think we need them anymore and China isn't a threat. (Sarcasm off)

  • bluqe

    Smart , yes an extremely smart move on China's part. It moves them right into the mainstream of global politics. Oh sure, there will be those who would have you believe it does not really matter, but to most of the world it gives China very good bragging rights and will allow them to circle the globe regularly to show off their new lethal toy. Many people will see this as another hugh step for China in surpassing the United States in it's willingness to become the mumber one power in the world., at a time when those in charge here in the U S, show little or no desire for any meaningful confrontation.

  • Richard Burke

    PRC is doing the first step with this carrier, in order to become a real sea power. It knows the tremendous power that naval air can project over a crucial area. It also knows from history, that past empire's without sea power did not last long, Napoleon, and the Third Reich are good examples. They do want to be number one.

  • 453a

    So, do yout think admirals are 100% stupid?
    http://www.navy.mil/navydata/policy/asw/asw-conop…

    The problem is you have a socialist President, so you will be ruined shortly due “incentives”, baliouts, welfare, public social security and alike. You have no more money, say goodbye to the superpower US.

  • Aussie Trooper

    Geebadder
    For too long America’s allies (not the French) have ridden her apron strings while you have done the heavy lifting. It is time the ABCA (NZ) countries got off their collective arses and contribute to what is a critical component of a ‘Blue Water Navy’. Deterence not appeasment is the way to go. You are not without fault but God Bless you USA or I would be speaking Mandarin. Pardon the change in tense it’s only 0630.

  • Aussie Trooper

    Geebadder
    For too long America’s allies (not the French) have ridden her apron strings while you have done the heavy lifting. It is time the ABCA (NZ) countries got off their collective arses and contribute to what is a critical component of a ‘Blue Water Navy’. Deterence not appeasment is the way to go. You are not without fault but God Bless you USA or I would be speaking Mandarin. Pardon the change in tense it’s only 0630.

  • SteveVF14

    John Moore, blight, and McKellar's comments are right on the money. China needs a carrier to to ensure success in seizing Taiwan. It is no secret that China is heavily involved in supplying and supporting radical Middle Eastern countries. A major war within the region would place our already downsized fleets into the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea simultaneously. China would then be able to overrun Taiwan in a blistering blitzkrieg-style attack. It is also worth mentioning that two years after firing test missiles at Taiwan, Gen. Xiong, then second in command of the People's Liberation Army, threatened to vaporize Los Angeles if the US interferes. Mr. Payne, don't blow off China as having an inferior carrier. It is the armed to teeth airwing aboard that counts.

  • willie jay simkins

    we need more battle ships

  • Tim

    The PLA's Navy is currently building ships and submarines at a feverish pace. Now, they have a slightly less number than all the US ships in all the fleets, with about 1/3 of them are brand new. It looks like the Chinese is heading to a 500-ship navy while the US is heading the opposite direction. God saves us if Gates gets his way.

    • blight

      China’s navy is smaller, and with a reasonably healthy economy it’s easier to pay for new build than it is for a navy built with a large pile of old ships to quickly upgrade to new ones.

      It’s the same boat the Royal Navy was in after dreadnaught. You had a large pile of predreadnaughts that were basically obsolete; whereas the USN did not participate as deeply in the battleship race and didn’t spend as much in treasure to build ships to the new standard.

      Having a large starting navy leaves you vulnerable to when the next tech advance makes your ships old or perilously close to obsolete. If the Navy didn’t have a bunch of SSN’s then we might not have cancelled Seawolf so quickly. However, without that bunch of SSN’s we wouldn’t have done so well in the Cold War. Again, this is always about the incumbent starting off with ships and having the advantage of experienced crews and boats in the water, but being vulnerable to when high equipment costs prevent them from having the funds to build new boats.