PRC's navy faces issues with carrier protection

By Cheng Ta-chen 鄭大誠  / 

Tue, Apr 24, 2007 - Page 8

The media have begun to hype up news of plans by China to obtain a new aircraft carrier. This kind of attention has its precedents, such as recent rumblings that China was in the process of building a nuclear-powered carrier, or that it planned to deploy two carrier groups in the Sea of Japan and the South China Sea. It is difficult to know what to make of all these developments.

A carrier group requires effective integration of fighting forces in the air, on the water and below the surface. Even if China could overcome the technological difficulties inherent to manufacturing and outfitting a large carrier, it would still have a long way to go to to put together a complete carrier group.

Although China's navy has imported many new platforms, it still lacks an integrated information management system, leaving it unable to coordinate battle plans with the other branches of its military. China's navy still relies heavily on foreign imports and technical guidance, especially on matters such as propulsion, navigation, detection and other major systems. This presents a serious challenge to force integration.

China also has many problems with its submarines. The Federation of American Scientists said that Chinese submarines have only gone out on patrol 49 times over the past 25 years, or about once every three years per submarine. Only two patrols are known to have taken place last year and none the year before. This underutilization raises the possibility that there might be some serious problem with China's submarines. If they have difficulty completing simple routine patrols, how are they supposed to accompany an aircraft carrier?

The Chinese navy also clearly lacks the aerial surveillance system required for modern air defense on a carrier, and also lacks the required data capabilities and sufficient military personnel to effectively carry out regional air defense missions. In addition, China has imported Russian Kilo-class submarines, which it could perhaps one combine with its indigenous Type-093 submarines. But without anti-submarine aircraft and surface vessels to provide advanced detection, not only will it be difficult for the submarines to repel attacks when confronted with superior enemy ships, but they might in turn be destroyed by anti-submarine forces.

Although China has been actively improving the structure of its rear logistical support, its command systems and rear support systems are completely incompatible, which makes it difficult to provide resupplies. This is a major setback for carrier groups, which are heavily dependent on effective rear support.

Although China's dream of deploying an aircraft carrier is not unfeasible, there are still many difficulties standing in the way of forming an effective fighting force.

A recent report by the Rand Corporation said that if war broke out between China and the US, China could use guided missile destroyers, bombers, anti-radiation cruise missiles, attack submarines or even land-based missiles to attack US ships. These are clearly the more immediate threats facing the US and Taiwan.

Cheng Ta-chen is an independent defense analyst.

Translated by Marc Langer