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China’s “Starter Carrier”

Here are some thoughts on the significance of China’s new aircraft carrier that Andrew Erickson, an expert on the PLAN at the U.S. Naval War College, passed on to Defense Tech. While China’s “starter carrier” may not compare to one of the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz class supercarriers, it will make waves with China’s neighbors in the Western Pacific. Enjoy.

China’s Navy has finally realized its longtime dream of obtaining an aircraft carrier and putting it to sea. It has been a long road from the Guomindang’s 1929 rejection of naval commander Chen Shaokuan’s proposal for building a Chinese aircraft carrier to the acquisition and refitting of the former Ukrainian carrier Varyag in Dalian Naval Shipyard, a task essentially as complex as building a carrier from scratch.

On August 10, 82 years after Adm. Chen’s proposal, China’s first carrier disappeared into the fog under tight security at 0540 local time from Dalian Harbour’s Xianglujiao Port in northeast Liaoning Province to begin sea trials. Liaoning Maritime Safety Authority has declared a temporary exclusion zone in a rectangular sea area nearby.

A newly-wed couple wants a ‘starter home,’ a new great power wants a ‘starter carrier.’ China’s ‘starter carrier’ is of very limited military utility, and will serve primarily to confer prestige though naval diplomacy, to help master basic operational procedures, and to project a bit of power—perhaps especially vis-à-vis smaller neighbours in the South China Sea. Having avoided the winds and waves recently sent to the Yellow Sea by Typhoon Muifa, the carrier will subject China to even more diplomatic turbulence as its neighbors react to the reality that their giant neighbour now has a basically-functioning carrier. …

Erickson also tells DT that we may have be wrong in thinking the ex-Varyag is going to be commissioned as the Shi Lang (a Chinese admiral who first conquored Taiwan). Instead, the ship may well be named after the Chinese city of Tianjin in keeping with PLAN tradition.

One detail–I don’t think the carrier will be named Shi Lang when commissioned. I think the name “ex-Varyag” is more accurate for now. Sounds clunky, I know. If you want to speculate based on traditional PLAN nomenclature, I believe it’s likely to be named after a large city, probably one of China’s 4 municipalities, with Tianjin perhaps the leading candidate based on Internet “rumint.”

For Erickson’s more detailed post on the ship, check out his recent piece at China Sign Post.

{ 66 comments… read them below or add one }

ew-3 August 29, 2011 at 4:57 pm

China's neighbors just need to invest in a few conventional subs.
It'll take China 20 to 30 years to develop enough ASW skills to protect that target.


brian August 29, 2011 at 5:23 pm

They are. The whole region has gone sub crazy after the NK torpedoed that SK destroyer.


Matrix_3692 August 30, 2011 at 1:34 am

well, that SK ship is hardly considered as a destroyer……it's just a large size corvette with very limited ASW capability.


John Johnson September 18, 2011 at 4:36 am

The SK corvette didn't even have a passive sonar. Btw, the area is not very cooperative with passive sonar anyways. too shallow and too much background noise.


blight August 29, 2011 at 5:27 pm

Time to buy lots of Shkvals and anti-ship CM's from Russia for psychological security.


Robert August 29, 2011 at 7:13 pm

Sounds like the PLAN is playing socialical games with its neighbors as it tries work out the bugs out of the "Shi Lang" or whatever they'll really call it.


Black Owl August 29, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Now if they actually knew how to use that equipment we might have something to worry about.


Lance August 29, 2011 at 7:39 pm

Its a piece of crap I don't get this fear over a crappy small carrier. What we need to do is sell the Philippines and Taiwan older Kitty Hawk class super carriers and A-4 and F-18s for them, make it a even playing ground then.


Roy Smith August 29, 2011 at 9:06 pm

The ONLY naval weapons that the Chinese have that we should worry about are their Sovremenny class destroyers,each equipped with 8 supersonic SS-N-22 Sunburn anti-ship cruise missiles,& their Type 052C destroyers. The Philippines doesn’t even have a fixed wing fighter fleet.They are more concerned with fighting Islamic & Maoist terrorists than with China. Give Taiwan an aircraft carrier or two & China will just sink them with their supersonic anti-ship missiles. IMMEDIATELY take out thier Sovremenny destroyers(I mean like RIGHT NOW,f**k Walmart). Those destroyers serve no defensive purpose,they are there for one purpose & one purpose only,to seek out & sink(destroy) OUR aircraft carriers. That alone is a provocation against us.


blight August 29, 2011 at 9:15 pm

Many of the Sovvys are retired. I wonder if they aren't scrapped yet…will they join the Varyag in a new shipyard any time soon?


Roy Smith August 29, 2011 at 9:37 pm

The Chinese already have 4 of them & they are operational. They received their last one in 2006. Rumors are their Sunburn missiles are nuclear tipped.But even if they are not,the kinetic energy alone will split a ship in two once one of the missiles hit it.


blight August 29, 2011 at 11:19 pm

There used to be a lot more than four. Half are retired, and the other five are still in service.

Maybe they'll sell a Kirov (or its conventionally-powered equivallent) to the PLAN? Ooh…

That said, I can't imagine any of the smaller Pacific powers having the funding or revenue to man a Kitty after paying to refurb it.

wakawski August 29, 2011 at 9:13 pm

I don't think 'fear' is what this is about. We aren't talking about the PLAN being able to go from this and straight into a multi-super carrier global deployment force.

But… the Chinese military apparatus is growing in both technical capability and tactical ability. They have made constant improvements in areas of SSCM/ASCM (longer range than western systems), air-to-air systems (both fighter development and AA missiles of greater range than ours), ship's systems integration (they're still learning this one, we're currently much better at it, but still have some issues). It all points to them stepping up their game.

Most people fall into two camps, deathly afraid of the PLA/PLAN, or entirely blowing them off as third rate like the Somali Navy (sarcasm there). The former group needs to tone it down to being 'slightly concerned.'

What I'm really not sure of is why everyone in the latter group has to put them down so fiercely. China will continue to make improvements in all areas of war-fighting including the cyber and space domains. All at a time when our economy is having issues, we outsource a lot of our technical expertise (meaning the current crop of R&D egg heads will be replaced with fewer people), we import a lot of our civilian/COTS technology, and we are decreasing spending on the military while China is increasing spending…. Just saying that the story is in the middle and both sides of the argument could learn from each other.


DDG August 29, 2011 at 10:35 pm

totally agree, and that's why no one reply to you post…….. Truth is boring :)


Lance_HBomb August 30, 2011 at 12:56 am

Agreed. People dislike a middleman because there's nothing to argue about then.


Ronald Reagan August 30, 2011 at 8:10 am

The reason I'm not replying is the post is just too long to read…. :D


Jay August 30, 2011 at 9:31 am

1. small carriers like the French de Gaulle (45,000 tons) and our LHD (40,000) performed very well in the Med recently. small carriers are also smaller targets and less expensive.

2. China's strategy is not to rely on one miracle weapon, but to deter and threaten our carriers by developing capabilities in every area. They are ramping up hacking, ASAT, sigint, jamming, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, economic warfare, etc in addition to the carrier. Broad spectrum warfare.

If anything we should be building diesel subs and selling them to Japan, SK, etc.


Curt August 31, 2011 at 9:19 am

You mean the Koreans and Japanese can't build their own diesel submarines?


John Johnson September 18, 2011 at 4:40 am

SK's been building capable diesel subs based on German designs for years. They recently won a contract to build such subs for Indonesia (or Thai) beating out French. Paying loyalty to the Germans of course. Japan also has good diesel program.


Mastro August 31, 2011 at 9:24 am

The US doesn't want any part of the diesel export business. IIRC the only way we could catch up to the Germans would be to release a lot of classified info.

Lets face it- the Taiwanese are doing big business in China- sending them military secrets is pretty naive. Might as well just cc Red Army/Navy.


asdf August 31, 2011 at 2:18 pm

The US doesn't want any part of the diesel export business.

why not?


John Johnson September 18, 2011 at 4:40 am

Because they don't need. SK and Japan both have decent diesel sub programs.

CSZ August 30, 2011 at 9:48 am

Surprised that Vikramaditya is not mentioned :)

Strategic weapons such as super carriers are not for sale (or given for "free"). US has sold many destroyers and frigates, fighters and patriots. But carriers, subs, bombers, ICBMs are not on the list. Also anything nuclear will not get on that list.

It is kind of a "prime directive", i.e. you don't give another country nuclear weapon technology if they have not split the atom yet.


blight August 30, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Adding another non-US carrier in the Pacific will probably trigger an arms race. The Russians will liquidate their Cold War excess, like that Slava they are completing in the Black Sea. Then again, they might be better served by picking the Slavas or the Kirovs and dumping the other. The Russians only have one Kirov that isn't trapped in the docks, and it might be worth considering dumping them on the PLAN. The Slavas are conventionally powered and are a better match or their conventionally powered surface fleet.


Mastro August 31, 2011 at 9:27 am

The Phillipine military is a joke outside of their COIN efforts - with US SEAL/Green Beret forces so embedded its almost embarrassing.

We just sold them an old Coast Guard cutter- it will be the pride and joy of their navy- and its 40+. They don't even have a Perry class frigate - and we are giving them away.


Jayson August 29, 2011 at 9:39 pm

No one knows if their stealth planes can even land or take off from it. I'm sure there will be a ton of accidents and a bunch of them going deep six and become artificial reefs somewhere out there. I'm sure it'll be a good 10+ years before they are proficient having aircraft on it.

They can do tech real well, but it 'll be awhile to have the technique.


Tri-ring August 29, 2011 at 10:32 pm

They can't. The J-20s are too big and too heavy to fly off a ski jump, in fact their J-15 will be severely limited due to the weight restriction in taking off from a ski jump like the Russians with their Su-33.
It is going to take quite a while for PRC to come up with a proper operation manual just to run the ship not to mention the time to train their people according to that manual.


Riceball August 30, 2011 at 10:29 am

Plus, I don't think the J-20s were ever intended as naval aircraft anyway. It's been pretty widely speculated/acknowledged that they'll be flying a navalized Su-20 variant of their ex-Varyag.


Riceball August 30, 2011 at 10:27 am

That's the whole reason for the ex-Varyag, to learn how to run and operate an aircraft carrier. It seems a lot of people aren't reading these article very thoroughly, this carrier is not meant as an end game nor as a challenge to our Nimitz's, it's only the first step to developing their own carrier fleet as well something to use to show the flag and to intimidate their smaller neighbors; nowhere has China nor any bloggers, or the US military ever suggested that this carrier is the end all be all to China's naval/military ambitions and that they don't still have a ways to go before they can begin to rival the US Navy.


Michael August 30, 2011 at 11:12 am

10+ years is short term for the Chinese. 50+ is medium term. I am totally convinced that in less than 50 years the Chinese will have mastered the carrier-game in all its aspects, and will have added some new ones, if they would desire so. It is a very stupid thing to underestimate the Chinese. They have money and time on their side, and brains to back it up. What does the West have?


blight August 30, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Now who's being unrealistic?

Carriers haven't even been around for fifty years. Things really started kicking off in the '20s, and a lot was learned about carrier ops in WW2, followed by another half-century of "peacetime" carrier ops: confined to CAS missions in Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Libya, GW1 and GW2.


blight August 30, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Correction, carriers have been around for fifty years, but it doesn't take fifty years to "master" ops (as the IJN, the RN and the USN can attest)


TLAM Strike August 31, 2011 at 12:10 am

"Carriers haven't even been around for fifty years."?


What DECADE are you in?

The first carrier based air raid was conducted in 1914 from the Japanase seaplane carrier Wakamiya. In 1918 the Brits were the first to launch a raid from the deck of a ship; HMS Furious.

So the carrier first saw combat 97 years ago.

Would that mean you are communicating to us from 1964?

… LISTEN there is a 7 year old kid in Saudi Arabia named Osama, you must kill him!


Vu Le September 15, 2011 at 7:15 pm
Hehe August 30, 2011 at 7:13 am



Plee August 30, 2011 at 8:33 am

China only has one yet-to-be operational aircraft carrier. US have 11+. It is really a long way for countering US's threat. Therefore, China should use the money & resourses to develop & build about the same number of nuclear warheads that US have. Because, I strongly believe the notion of mutual destruction is the only way to prevent the US to invade or at least to threat China.


blight August 30, 2011 at 8:48 am

If the PRC can launch rockets into space, they're pretty much at the point where they can drop nukes where they please. However, the same midcourse missile defense that can knock down North Korean missiles can also target missiles from the PRC.


Roy Smith August 30, 2011 at 9:25 am

How many aircraft carriers do we have not layed up in dock getting refitted/refueled? How many do we have in the Pacific not layed up in dock getting refitted/refueled? It may still sound like an impressive number,but China AND Russia can sink them all with nuclear tipped Sunburn Missiles & then this little crappy aircraft carrier can have the Pacific Ocean all to herself. To even the playing field & regain superiority,we need to sink their missile destroyers NOW. Those destroyers are not for defense,they are solely for hunting our aircraft carriers & sinking them.


CSZ August 30, 2011 at 9:37 am

You need to relax. The Sovremenny class are for area air defense, not anti-ship. The 8 Moskit missiles are nothing compared to the harpoons on a hornet.


blight August 30, 2011 at 12:31 pm

It's more that the Soviet Navy has an unusual emphasis on loading their surface combatants with anti-air missiles. Even the Kirovs and Slavas had boatloads of anti-air missiles and only a few anti-ship cruise missiles.

The discrepancy between a Soviet ship's AShCM loadouts and the paper loadouts of a VLS-equipped CG or DDG is probably because the Soviets chose to maximize anti-air missile loadouts. In a shooting war, we would probably do the same and carry less TLAMs, so that 90+ cells that used to dump TLAMs on Pakistan would be a more balanced mix.


Roy Smith August 30, 2011 at 5:35 pm

“You need to relax. The Sovremenny class are for area air defense, not anti-ship. The 8 Moskit missiles are nothing compared to the harpoons on a hornet.”

The Harpoon Missiles are sub-sonic missiles. China’s AEGIS destroyers(thank you Bill Clinton,I know China does) can take them out easily. The Moskit(Sunburn) missiles travel at mach 2.5 & can be carried by surface ships & Su-27(carrier version) aircraft. I just don’t see how subsonic beats out mach 2.5. The Sovremenny class destroyer is a purely “OFFENSIVE” weapon. Edward Timperlake & William Triplett,II made this point clear in their book “Red Dragon Rising.” Really,it doesn’t matter what platform launches the Sunburn,China’s civilian ship fleet & tanker ships could be equipped to launch one.


blight August 30, 2011 at 7:43 pm

"…the Type 052C is completely based on Chinese technology (apart from a few sensors). The most notable feature is the Chinese developed four-array multifunction active phased array radar Type 348 Radar (APAR) similar to the Thales Netherlands APAR system. Additionally, the destroyers are also fitted with the vertical launch system (VLS) for the Chinese HQ-9 long-range air defence missile system, and the latest YJ-62 (C-602) anti-ship missile, both of which are not seen on previous Chinese surface warships."

"Most Chinese warships use the command and control system derived from the French Thomson-CSF TAVITAC, but the Type 052C might have a newly developed system with improved processing power to engage anti-ship missile threats. Another reason for the increased processing capability is to accommodate the Ka-28 ASW helicopters which lack the onboard processing capability to process the information gathered, so the information has to be passed to the host ship for processing and then passed back to the helicopter via data links. Although Chinese claimed that combat data systems based on MIL-STD-1773 fiber optic databus standard have been already successfully developed by the early 2000s, it is highly unlikely this latest version is adopted for Type 052C, which is most likely still to have MIL-STD-1553B databus standard. Domestic Chinese media have claimed that the latest combat data systems based on MIL-STD-1553B standard currently in Chinese service are versatile enough to be upgraded to MIL-STD-1773 standard eventually, but this is yet to be confirmed by sources outside China."


TLAM Strike August 31, 2011 at 12:38 am

Sunburns are "high" altitude streaker. They fly strait and level about 18 meters (their "low" fuel inefficient setting, for max range they need to go higher). The old AM 39 Exocet of Falklands fame is a low altitude dancer, it flies at an altitude of 1-2 meters. The detection horizon of an Exocet is about 15 miles, for a streaker the massive heat plume from its ramjets or radar emissions can be seen over the horizon (in the case of the Sunburn its 22 nmi).

Their high speeds also cause heating issues meaning they MUST use an active radar seeker, a subsonic missile can use a undetectable IR seeker. Also the high speeds would cause RAM placed on the airframe to burn off a streaker.

Also as the names suggest a dancer can jink to avoid being hit while a streaker just bores in like a Kamikaze.

A missile like a Harpoon or Exocet is a small and sneaky in other words.

The Novator Alfa missile (SS-N-27 'SIZZLER') is the PRC weapon to fear, it cruises like a dancer and attacks like a streaker. Fortunately they are only carried by China's Kilo class submarines and those rarely leave port.

Tim August 30, 2011 at 8:47 am

I would love to compare the US Navy’s idea of what a “Fully Operational Carrier” is compared to the above.

Yet again more people suffering from what I call the ” Firefox” syndrome.


Christopher Bloom August 30, 2011 at 9:25 am

Qualitativly and quantitatively china is over coming its neighbors armed forces in order to bully them.

In ten years a operational varyag with a air wing can threaten any of its neighbors ability to use global commerce for their own benefit in order to force them under their thumb.


John Johnson September 18, 2011 at 4:42 am

They can dream. But not gonna happen.


Fighterfanboy August 30, 2011 at 2:38 pm

KAAAA-BBBOOOMMMMM !!!!!!! 16-2000 lbs. Jdams come out off sky from some unseen stealth aircraft. No more aircraft carrier. 10 years of work, Puff! Stealth one, Carrier zero!


Letsallbefriends August 30, 2011 at 6:18 pm

Wipe the dribble off your Tom Clancy novel and join the real world. America isn’t going to drop JDAMs on anything Chinese because the Chinese have nukes (& vice versa). Anyway, the carrier is for development & impressing the locals. They’ve already beaten America economically.


Matt August 30, 2011 at 6:49 pm

I’m assuming “fighterfanboy” means in a time of war… Not just cause the President is bored one day. And just because a country has nukes doesn’t mean they’ll use them as a 1st choice. See every war America/Russia/PRC has fought since the 1950s.


So? August 30, 2011 at 9:27 pm

All carriers are for impressing the locals.


blight August 30, 2011 at 9:36 pm

All weapons impress locals until its showtime, and you realize they're not so good for what they were intended to do in the first place.


STemplar August 31, 2011 at 3:26 am

Beaten America economically how? Investing the majority of their hard currency reserves in US dollars?? Got us right where the want us all right.


Chris August 30, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Makes a easy target for subs. Doubt they can protect it - would likely be sunk at its moorings for all the good it will do them.


tiger August 31, 2011 at 4:58 pm

South China sea is not very sub friendly. Shallow water for a nuc sub.


John Johnson September 18, 2011 at 4:43 am

SK and Japan have diesels subs. And you can bet they are not building them to counter just the NK.


voz August 30, 2011 at 8:42 pm

It wont't be used in any warfare I presumed, it's more or less a psychological symbol and a pursuit of achievement. The Chinese knows it's not going to work in a major warfare, not even to fight an US sub… But it's a great start to them. When it comes to the fifth AC, American should watch out carefully because it should mean something.


John Johnson September 18, 2011 at 4:44 am

By the time China has 5th AC, I'd think Japan/SK will have a few of their own to counter.


wayne August 30, 2011 at 8:51 pm

Hello… its made in China….. wont last long….


blight August 30, 2011 at 8:58 pm

It was Soviet Navy built, correction.


TLAM Strike August 31, 2011 at 12:12 am

correct of correction, it was built in Ukraine.


Matrix_3692 August 30, 2011 at 11:11 pm

hell, there's some home apparatus (that is made in china) in my grandparent's house that's older than me and still working just find as they did when they just brought it in


blight August 30, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Considering that American companies instruct Chinese factories to make it cheaper and flimsier, whose fault is it again?


tiger August 31, 2011 at 4:59 pm

I could say the same about most Chrysler products……..


TLAM Strike August 31, 2011 at 3:34 pm

@defense tech: I posted a large reply to one of Roy Smith's comments and its was "awaiting review" or some such. I've never seen that before, and I don't see my post, its been over 12 hours since I made it.

…I really don't want to try and write it again… :(


Vu Le September 15, 2011 at 7:19 pm

With Japan and Taiwan in the north and the Flips on the side, all that is needed now is to ally with Vietnam in the south. We can really put pressure on them to be nice.


Mike September 15, 2011 at 7:34 pm

I find it very worrisome. Here's my short rendition of how a war breaks out through miss-steps.


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