South China Sea exercises in July by two United States Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carriers reminds that Taiwan’s history since mid-1950, and as a free nation, is intertwined with that of the aircraft carrier. Eventually Taiwan will host aircraft carriers, either those built under its democratic government or those imposed on its territory by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
By September 1944, a lack of sufficient carrier airpower and land-based airpower persuaded US Army and Navy leaders to forgo an invasion to wrest Taiwan from Japanese control, thereby sparing Taiwanese considerable wartime destruction. But two days after North Korea’s invasion of South Korea on June 27, 1950, when US President Harry Truman ordered the US Navy’s 7th Fleet to “neutralize” the Taiwan Strait, it was the arrival of the carrier USS Valley Forge on June 29 that added the strength to deter Mao Zedong (毛澤東) from attempting an invasion.
In February 1955, after persuading a reluctant Chiang Kai-Shek (蔣介石), seven US carriers helped provide air cover for the evacuation of Taiwanese troops and civilians from the difficult-to-defend Dachen Islands. But Chiang would also benefit from public shows of Washington’s support when he visited US aircraft carriers on four occasions: first the USS Wasp in January 1954 amid the First Taiwan Straits Crisis; then USS Midway in late 1958 during the Second Taiwan Straits Crisis; the USS Constellation in July 1963; and, with his son and successor Chiang Ching-Kuo (蔣經國), the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise in March 1966.
Another nuclear-powered carrier, the USS Nimitz, along with the non-nuclear powered USS Independence, would embarrass CCP leader Jiang Zemin (江澤民) by demonstrating the PLA’s inability to prevent Washington from supporting Taiwan, during the Taiwan Straits Crisis of March 1996. But this incident would advance already underway PLA efforts in two directions: the assembling of unique and diverse capabilities to sink American aircraft carriers; and the PLA’s ambitions to build its own carriers.
Today the PLA’s “anti-access” or anti-carrier capabilities derive from new Joint Operations strategies that centralize coordinated control over weapons held by the PLA Navy, PLA Air Force (PLAAF), PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), and the new PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF). Unique to the PLA are PLARF’s hypersonic speed anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) including the 1,700km range DF-21D, the 4,000km range DF-26B, and a likely future version of the maneuverable hypersonic glide vehicle equipped 2,000km range DF-17.
Land-based ASBM strikes will be coordinated with land-based bomber strikes, such as by the new H-6K that can carry long-range anti-ship cruise missiles or the H-6N bomber equipped to fire one 1,000km range air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM). This missile may soon be configured to shoot down US surveillance and communication satellites in Low Earth Orbit, supporting the growing constellation of PLA communication, surveillance and targeting satellites controlled by the PLASSF. Fairly soon PLAN surface warships and submarines may be equipped with long-range ASBMs, improving on the PLA’s threats to US Navy carriers.
But this does not mean the CCP does not believe in aircraft carriers; it hopes to sink American carriers first so that its future fleet of aircraft carrier battle groups can help enforce CCP hegemony in Asia and then globally. After three decades of intelligence gathering, and the acquisition of an incomplete carrier hulk designed by the former Soviet Union, in September 2012 the PLAN commissioned the rebuilt ski-jump non-nuclear powered, 60,000 ton carrier Liaoning, followed by the China-build copy Shandong, commissioned in December 2019.
These two initial PLAN carriers support about 30 combat jets, supported by large helicopters equipped for airborne early warning and anti-submarine support missions. With their transits of the Taiwan Strait and sorties along the East Coast of Taiwan they serve coercive propaganda missions. Just last May, the Chinese magazine Naval and Merchant Ships featured attacks by Liaoning and Shandong in a video simulation of a joint-force invasion of Taiwan.
On July 17 the South China Morning Post reported that the PLAN could have six carriers by 2035, including two non-nuclear powered 70,000 ton flat-deck catapult-equipped conventional take-off carriers, the first of which could be launched in 2021. By 2026, according to some Chinese source, the PLAN could start building its first nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and have a total of ten carriers by about 2050. Their new air wings could have stealth strike fighters, large prop-driven airborne warning and control (AWACS) aircraft, and new unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). By this time, the PLAN may also have nuclear-powered escort cruisers and nuclear-powered large supply ships, to form the world’s first fully nuclear-powered carrier battle groups.
But crucial to this ambition would be the conquest of Taiwan, in order to secure the best nuclear carrier battle group deployment positions to dominate Asia and then to project CCP power globally. For example, from Taiwan PLAN nuclear carrier battle groups could reach New Zealand in less than a week, pressuring it and Australia to curtail defense cooperation with the United States, which would then have to withdraw naval forces to defend the Western Hemisphere. Similar PLAN pressures could force the US to limit defense commitments in the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, and Europe.
Preventing the PLA from attacking Taiwan in the next three years is now a real preoccupation in Taipei and Washington. This can be done, especially by acceleration of the Trump Administration’s ongoing development and deployment of new medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles. American ASBM versions of these missiles can sink PLAN carriers and amphibious invasion ships too, and should be quickly offered to US allies and partners.
There should also be consideration in Taipei and Washington of future small-size aircraft carrying ships for Taiwan’s navy. Japan is going to modify its 27,000 ton Izumo class landing helicopter dock (LHD) to carry the 5th generation US F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) fighter. South Korea reportedly decided to buy 20 F-35Bs to arm either a future 41,000 ton or a 70,000 ton class carrier, that will likely prompt Japan to follow suit. In 2017 Taiwan’s navy revealed plans to build a 22,000 ton LHD, which could be made slightly larger to host a useful number of F-35Bs that Washington should reconsider selling to Taiwan.
LHDs with F-35Bs would give Taiwan greater strategic depth to counter PLA attacks. But more importantly, the F-35’s advanced long-range surveillance, large data base, and high capacity data link capabilities, when working with US and Japanese F-35s, could allow Taiwan to continue fighting after initial PLA missile and air strikes. Taiwan’s “aircraft carriers” could provide an asymmetric capability to sustain deterrence in the late 2020s and beyond. In the meantime, why not revive the practice of inviting Taiwanese civilian and military leaders to visit US Navy carriers steaming near Taiwan?
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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