China’s recently launched aircraft carrier the Liaoning appears to be “merely symbolic and nothing more,” a study published this week by the US Naval Institute says.
“Currently, the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] relies heavily on a complex of missiles, mines and submarines to keep the US or other external parties at arm’s length in the event of war over Taiwan or other islands,” the study says.
“It is hard to see how a Chinese carrier force of any feasible size would contribute to this task, given its presumed vulnerability to submarines,” the study by retired US Navy captain Robert Rubel says.
The study could be interpreted as providing strong support for Taiwan’s efforts to acquire new diesel submarines to deter a Chinese attack.
Equipped with only 30 jets, the Liaoning could not generate a “sufficient pulse of power” to knock out a major target with one big strike, and with its ski-jump launch system the range and amount of weapons carried by the jets was “too restrictive,” the study says.
“Depending on the nature of the air campaign, at least two aircraft carriers would be needed to maintain continuous coverage at even a minimum level,” Rubel says.
“In terms of Chinese naval aviation, credible combat power will not be achieved until the PLAN [PLA Navy] is able to dispatch at least two carriers on a single mission, and this may not be enough, depending on the defenses they encounter,” Rubel says.
Improved air defenses, coastal-defense cruise missiles, quiet diesel submarines, new types of mines and other systems are making it impossible for aircraft carriers to fight near their target — precisely where the Liaoning would be forced to operate.
“Antisubmarine warfare is not one of the PLAN’s strong suits, so combat credibility even against weak neighbors such as Vietnam, who is reportedly purchasing six Kilo-class submarines from Russia, is potentially compromised,” the study says.
It says that given the serious constraints on the Liaoning’s offensive and defensive capabilities, an attack would only work if the opponent either could not or would not oppose the carrier with diesel subs or other modern anti-access systems.
The credible combat power of Chinese naval aviation is thus compromised until Beijing develops a new class of carrier with catapults and until it significantly strengthens its antisubmarine warfare defenses, the study says.
“Simply put, in a war with the US, Chinese carrier aviation would likely be doomed,” it says.
“In limited wars with regional powers close to home, the carriers might provide some utility, especially covering amphibious or special-forces operations, again assuming that a significant diesel-submarine threat does not materialize,” the study says.