By Jonathan Davis
We know that the Chinese navy has been dabbling in the development of aircraft carriers, first with the purchase and refurbishment of an unfinished Soviet-era carrier followed by the construction of a domestically-built ship.
But wanting to develop and field modern carrier strike groups and actually being able to do so are two different things.
As we have noted, China’s newest carrier, the Shandong, put to sea this month for trials, with aims to dominate regional and even global rivals, according to domestic media.
However, the Chinese government has a number of hurdles to overcome, not the least of which is due to two things: The Trump-induced trade war and a lack of technology.
I have noted before that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is literally nearly a century behind the United States in operational experience regarding aircraft carriers.
It’s one thing to copy someone’s warship design; it’s another to train a fleet to use that ship effectively. And there is no substitute for experience.
There are other hurdles, as Strategy Page notes:
Earlier in 2019 it looked like China was moving forward to expand its carrier force by building four steam powered carriers followed by a larger nuclear powered class similar to the American ones. At the end of 2019 it was announced that plans had changed. There were numerous problems that contributed to the decision and it meant a smaller Chinese fleet with far fewer carriers.
The most immediate problem was the trade war with the United States. Exports to the U.S. are down 23 percent and devaluation of the yuan (the Chinese currency) mean that dollars coming from the U.S. trade is down by nearly 30 percent. Exports to other Western nations are down as well, mainly due to foreign manufacturing operations moving out of China to get away from problems that have little to do with the U.S. trade war. Those dollars are important to pay for oil, which China is the largest importer of. Their growing fleet consumes a lot of oil, but the Chinese economy needs it more. Each carrier is accompanied by up to ten support ships. Half of that is warships but the other half are for “sustainment”, carrying oil and other supplies to keep the carriers going for as long as they are at sea. All those ships burn lots of oil, imported oil.
The second problem is military technology. China expected difficulties developing and implementing all the many technologies needed to effectively operate carrier task forces. Fixing those problems is taking longer than expected. This is especially true with the carriers and aircraft that can operate from them. Most of China’s modern aircraft are illegal copies of Russian designs and efforts to implement lots of stolen American aircraft tech has not gone as smoothly as hoped. …
The third problem is that those carriers and other large warships are meant to defend Chinese claims in the South China Sea and that is proving more expensive than anticipated. Not only do the growing number of artificial island bases have to be supplied by ship but to operate larger ships in the generally shallow South China Sea you have to dredge deeper channels to move those large ships around. This year China cancelled another major dredging operation because of cost, especially the oil needed for the dredging ships and support vessels. …
A fourth problem is demographic. Several decades of the “one-child” per couple policy did prevent a population explosion. It also helped create the first large (several hundred million strong) Chinese middle class of well-educated engineers and other professionals. These are the people who were key to China quickly creating the second largest GDP in the world. But there is a catch. Affluent, talented women everywhere, and throughout history, don’t have a lot of children.
One other development: As China ramped up naval development as well as claims to the entire South China Sea, Beijing’s neighbors — Japan, Vietnam, Australia, South Korea, and even Taiwan — have ramped up military spending and naval procurement in response. And these neighbors are increasingly aligning with the U.S.