Mon, May 02, 2011 - Page 3 News List

ANALYSIS: China’s new aircraft carrier changes strategic map

RISING THREAT:While it may be years before China’s aircraft carrier provides any real threat, it joins the J-15 fighter jet in ratcheting up the risks for US forces in the region

By J. Michael Cole  /  Staff Reporter

“Then, putting a flotilla together centered around the carrier and integrating the pieces into an organic combat unit will be the next challenge. This will take time,” Yoshihara said, adding that potential PLAN losses and the attendant public relations setbacks as pilots experiment with carrier-based operations would likely compel Beijing to call for a go-slow approach to minimize risks.

Holmes, who recently co--authored a book on the PLAN with Yoshihara, said the assessment that the Varyag would predominantly be used for training purposes appeared to be correct.

Regarding the impact of the Varyag on Taiwan’s security, Holmes said a carrier would certainly impose a new threat axis on Taipei and compel it to think about defending its eastern seas and skies, as well as around the western periphery, a direction it did not have to worry about previously.

“However, Taiwan lies within range of so much land-based PLA [People’s Liberation Army] weaponry and aircraft and so many seagoing assets that a single carrier group would make little difference except at the margins,” he said.

“Over the longer term, as more carriers enter the fleet and PLAN pilots become more proficient, then that might change,” Holmes said.

According to various reports, in addition to the Varyag, China is believed to be building its own nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, some of which could be deployed around 2020. The PLAN has reportedly shown great interest in smaller carriers, such as the French-built Clemenceau-class.

PLAN conventional carriers would likely operate mainly in the South China Sea, helping uphold Beijing’s territorial claims there and continuing to refine carrier operations until nuclear-powered carriers enter the fleet, Holmes said.

“If Beijing goes down that road, nuclear propulsion would liberate the PLAN for operations farther afield, most likely in the Indian Ocean basin, while easing the need for foreign bases somewhat,” he said.

Reports that China may be developing Landing Helicopter Dock vessels, from which vertical and short takeoff and landing (VSTOL) aircraft could operate, would also add to China’s operational capabilities out at sea. Last month, unconfirmed reports claimed China had flight-tested a J-18 Red Eagle multi-role aircraft with VSTOL capabilities.

Of course, what makes an aircraft carrier a potent combat platform at sea is predominantly the aircraft it carries. If reports from earlier last week are true that the J-15 is nearing completion, its entry sometime near 2015 could spell trouble not just for Taiwan, but the region as a whole.

“The big news regarding the J-15 is that when it first deploys, the PLAN’s first aircraft carrier will have a fighter that is competitive-to-superior to the US-made Boeing F/A-18E/F, the expected US Navy workhorse fighter for many years to come,” said Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington and an expert on the Chinese military.

The J-15 would also be markedly superior to the aircraft in the Taiwanese air force.

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