Reports last month that China’s first aircraft carrier could embark on its maiden voyage sometime this year, added to speculation that the Chinese navy’s first -carrier-based aircraft could be operational by 2015, point to the high likelihood that Taiwan’s security dilemma is about to become even more complex. That said, Taipei and the region need not panic just yet, analysts say.
After nearly nine years of refurbishing work at a port in Dalian, Chinese military enthusiasts and media say that the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) first aircraft carrier — acquired from Ukraine in 1998 — could set sail as early as this summer.
Although the Varyag, which reports claim will be renamed “Shi Lang,” after a Qing Dynasty admiral, has been officially advertised as a training platform, analysts say that it could also serve combat purposes.
The Varyag still lacks some of its more high-tech features, such as phased array radars and surface-to-air missiles, and those features are unlikely to be fully installed when the carrier sets out on its first journey.
Questions also remain about the engine that will be used to propel it, as the hull acquired in 1998 reportedly did not come with an engine or, if it did, it had been deliberately damaged as the result of foreign political pressure on Kiev.
PLAN pilots also have very little experience with the hazardous takeoffs and landings on an aircraft carrier, and those aircraft — such as the Russian-made Sukhoi-33 and China’s J-15 Flying Shark, which unconfirmed reports claim is nearing completion — have yet to prove their combat effectiveness. All of this means that the Varyag is unlikely to serve as an actual combat platform for a few years.
However, that time will come and unless Taiwan, regional powers and the region’s sole guarantor of security, the US, react accordingly, when that time does come, it has the potential to be a game changer.
When asked by the Taipei Times to comment on what the back-to-back announcements meant for regional security, James Holmes, associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, said that the news was expected.
“We’ve known the ship is coming for some time now, so it makes sense they’d be working on an air wing. If the J-15 is indeed fully ready to go by 2015, that will probably coincide with when the ship is fully ready to go,” he said on Wednesday.
Holmes also said there was no need for alarm just yet.
“Having put an old ship — a ship that, unlike the foreign-built, never operational Varyag, was built by my country and had operated successfully at sea — I feel pretty safe in saying it will be a while before the Varyag is fully ready for service,” he said.
“Going out on sea trials is the beginning of the road, not the end,” Holmes said. “Getting all of the ship’s systems in working condition is quite another and that leaves aside the perils of launching and recovering aircraft at sea.”
Toshi Yoshihara, also of the US Naval War College, believes the immediate strategic impact of a Chinese aircraft carrier will be minimal, because the PLAN will need to build a much larger fleet of surface combatants to form the US equivalent of a carrier strike group.
“The Chinese still seem to be engaging in a fleet experimentation process, figuring out what would work best for them,” he said. “The dribs and drabs of multiple ship types that characterize the current fleet won’t really cut it for -serious war-fighting purposes. They still need to settle on a satisfactory ship design, which they seem to be nearing, and proceed with serial production.”