By Andrei Pinkov
After a careful review of its development in the past five years, it is not difficult to find that the Chinese navy has a special interest in aircraft carriers. The "Climensau" of France, the "Vayarg" and "Minsk" of Russia, and the light aircraft carrier designed by the Spaniard Bazan were all reported to be related to China. The speculations of the reporters were not groundless because Russia's "Minsk" has "already settled down" in China and the "Vayarg" is reported to arrive in Macao next year.
Due to limited funds, there exists a dispute in the Chinese navy between those who are advocating giving priority to the development of aircraft carriers and those who believe nuclear submarines should claim the first priority. In a special report, the PLA (PLA: People Liberation Army) Liberation Army Daily indicated on March 20, 1996 that the 21st century is a period when the arsenal warships and aircraft carriers and "island of war" share equal importance.
Contrary to those who take a cautious attitude towards the development of aircraft carriers, some young and vigorous naval officials maintain that the warships and aircraft carriers of a higher tonnage should be built.
The construction of aircraft carriers seems to have become the basic mutual understanding of the young and vigorous naval officials. For example, in his special article entitled "the Dream of the Chinese Aircraft Carriers", Captain Cao Xuegui from the No.108 destroyer of "Luda" class, (who graduated from the Boatswain Class of Dalian Naval Vessel College and from the Captain Class of Guangzhou Naval Vessel College) indicates that the necessity of building aircraft carriers lies in the fact that a mobile "battlefield on the sea" is needed in case of war in the South China Sea. In addition, the Taiwanese authorities now engaging in arms expansion and the activities for the independence of Taiwan run rampant. In a special discussion, the captain of frigate No. 537 believes: "it is a top priority to build or import aircraft carriers and this necessity is not man-made, but arises from the realistic situation of war". However, he admits: "it still requires quite a long period of time before this goal can be reached and this goal will hardly be achieved in the near future".
In fact, for a large country, the feasibility study for development of aircraft carriers is far more complex than one can predict. As early as the period of the third 5-year plan, the Soviet Union worked out the "Great plan"("Balishaya Pulogulama" ) on the basis of its "active offshore defense" theory, with an emphasis on the development of a heavy-duty fleet including aircraft carriers. It was because the 2nd World War broke out that this plan was delayed. The active advocate for the "Balishaya Pulogulama" was the then-naval People's Councilor Kutsnietsov. He tried hard to oppose the theory of "small fleet, small wars" proposed by the Orlov naval People's Councilors after 1927. The "Balishaya Pulogulama" advocated the balanced development of large modern warships,a naval air force, and a marine corps. Its theoretical basis is undoubtedly largely similar to that on which the Chinese scholars today propose building the navy for the "active offshore defence". In 1952 after the war, Stalin set the "plan for the construction of a large oceangoing navy". However, after his death, Kruchev's theory of giving priority to the development of rockets and nuclear submarines occupied the dominant position. In that time, aircraft carriers had to temporarily give way. Should people believe that China's current situation is, more or less, similar to the period of the early Kruchev's administration? This is because the theory of prioritizing nuclear submarines holds that nuclear submarines are irreplaceable compared to aircraft carriers. This is because if a situation in which a possible fund shortage were to occur, the nuclear submarine can provide a high capability of seclusion and nuclear deterrence. In addition, without being covered by the long-range underwater forces (nuclear submarines), aircraft carriers may become moving caskets on the water in the epoch of highly developed ship-to-ship missiles. This is also the major concern of those in the Chinese navy who take a cautious attitude toward the development of aircraft carriers.
Even during Kruchev's time, which focused on the development of missiles and nuclear submarines, the Soviet navy never gave up the feasibility study of aircraft carriers and thought that it was just a matter of time to own them. Different from China, the Soviet Union spent a very short period of time on the theoretical feasibility study. In 1962, the Soviet Union officially started to build 14000 ton light-class helicopter carriers, called "Moscow". It served as a material object for the study of its manufacturing techniques, its applications, and its performance in the combined operations. The construction of the Kiev (first one of the "Minsk" class aircraft carriers) was officially started in 1970, while that of the "Vayarg" class was officially started in 1982. The construction of these three types of the aircraft carriers reflects the different operational thinking that S.G. Gorshkov had. Soon after Gorshkov took office in 1958, he decided that the mission of the navy was to apply the "tactical role" which mainly relied on ship-to-ship attacks. It included defending the Soviet strategic nuclear submarines and sea routes as well as destroying the enemy's sea routes. These three tasks had much to do with the anti-submarine mission. Therefore, the most important task of the "Moscow" helicopter carrier was that of an anti-submarine role. Its construction was the victory of those who supported the development of nuclear submarines rather than that of those who were in favor of aircraft carriers.
The "Moscow" aircraft carrier undertook the tactical task of defending the Soviet strategic nuclear submarines and sea routes as well as destroying the sea routes of the enemy. It is worth noting that these strategic tasks are also the new operational thinking the Chinese navy, which had been hoping to reach in recent years under three repeatedly emphasized guiding ideologies. These ideologies are "that the sea is a strategic base", "that Taiwan should be blockaded", and "that the more effective second nuclear counterattack capability should be established".
In the early 1970s, Gorshkov hoped to fly the flags of the Soviet navy in every corner of the five continents and the four oceans in the world. In this case, the operational mission of the Soviet navy shifted from the tactical role that mainly relied on ship-to-ship attack to the "strategic position" which emphasized ship-to-ground attack while taking account of ship-to-ship attack. The new task was to hit the strategic targets and facilities on land and to attack the strategic conglomerations on the sea like an aircraft carrier fleet. "The navy is no longer only used for ship-to-ship attacks, its major use now is to attack the inland strategic strongholds of the enemy from the sea". The attack was carried out mainly by the combined operations of underwater heavy-duty SSBNs, multi-purpose SSGNs, and aircraft carrier fleets. Under the guidance of this strategic thinking, the mission of the "Vayarg" aircraft carrier was to use the large number of its long-range ship-to-ship and ship-to-air missiles that it carried and to cooperate with large missile cruisers, SSGNs, and SSBNs for the purpose of completely destroying the enemy's aircraft carrier fleet and SSGNs. Finally, the "Vayarg" aircraft carrier combat group was used to cover the SSGNs, which launched an attack from an off-shore area to the inland strategic target of the enemy with conventional cruise missiles similar to the SS-N-21. In the meantime, if necessary, the SS-N-19 ship-to-ship missiles which the "Vayarg" aircraft carrier carried had a range of 555 kilometers that could also be launched from the sea to attack vessels berthed at an enemy naval port.
As for the "Minsk" class, which happened to be built at the time between the appearances of both types of aircraft carriers, had two operational principles. It had to have very outstanding characteristics that reflected "transitionally" and in accordance with "the consideration of the two principles". It needed both to fulfill the naval combat and tactical task in the mode of ship-to-ship attacks and to undertake the "strategic applications" of ship-to-ship and ship-to-ground attacks. Therefore, it had the missions of fighting the enemy submarines, attacking the strategic conglomeration of the enemy's aircraft carriers, and hitting the enemy's naval strategic facilities on land as well as its vessels berthed at naval bases. The equipment of the "Minsk" class aircraft carrier fully reflected the above intentions of the Soviet navy in that period of time. This means "equipping the aircraft carrier with anti-submarine missiles (SUW-N-1), long-range anti-warship missiles (SS-N-12 with a range of 555 kilometers), and air defense missiles as long as it is possible to do so. The more fully equipped, the better".
With the strategic operational missions of attacking the enemy's strategic targets (mainly naval bases) on land and its strategic conglomerations at sea, the "Vayarg" aircraft carrier is, to a large extent, not suitable for today's Chinese navy.
First of all, the major target of the Chinese navy is Taiwan. As the Chinese naval base is geographically close to Taiwan, it is not necessary for China to resort to aircraft carriers or large warships on water to attack the inland targets of Taiwan. At the most, considering the involvement of the USA, China needs to use the long-range missiles to launch a ship-to-ship attack on the US aircraft carriers. This is different from the Soviet navy that owned a strong warship fleet. The Chinese navy, due to the lack of the superiority both on water and in the air, may expect that nuclear submarines are more secluded and can be used to attack US aircraft carriers if the Chinese operational thinking deems it necessary to do so. Just because it is weak in its combat effectiveness both on water and in the air, China has never stopped its study to find out how to equip its aircraft carriers with a strong ship-to-ship and ship-to-air missile capability. For example, Captain Cao Xuegui of the No.108 "Luda"-class destroyer, advocates building a 15000 ton light-duty nuclear power-driven aircraft carrier which has a carrying capacity of various combat aircraft and is equipped with ship-to-ship and ship-to-air missiles, fully automatic 100mm and 30mm cannons, advanced C3I and electronic warfare system.
On the basis of the above discussions, in terms of the distribution of fighting tasks, the Chinese navy still prefers to use the "Moscow" and "Minsk" class aircraft carriers for the goal it expects an aircraft carrier to achieve. The main goal of the Chinese navy is to ensure the safety of the navigation channel and its nuclear submarines as well as to destroy the enemy's sea routes while maintaining the anti-submarine task as the priority. In the meantime, the secondary goal also includes accomplishing "appropriately" the strategic task of launching a ship-to-ship attack to eliminate the large fleets of the enemy.
In terms of the distribution of the fighting tasks, the Chinese navy is still inclined to believe that the purpose it determined for the aircraft carriers is more similar to that of the tactical task designed for the "Moscow" and "Minsk" aircraft carriers. These purposes being giving priority to the task of anti-submarine, safeguarding their own navigation channels and nuclear submarines, destroying the enemy's sea routes, and in due course accomplishing the strategic task of launching a ship-to-ship attack in order to wipe out large enemy fleets.
Obviously, as far as the fighting tasks are concerned, not a single one of the three above-mentioned classes of the Soviet aircraft carriers, (i.e. the "Moscow", the "Minsk", and the "Vayarg", can fully and completely meet the combat needs of the Chinese navy. However, the assimilation of the advantages of each of the Soviet aircraft carriers will not only provide a complete understanding of the whole development process, but will also enable the Chinese to follow the train of thought the Soviet designers had in designing all of these three aircraft carriers. The Chinese can make use of these strong points in the development of their own aircraft carriers. This is why China also holds a high expectation for the "Minsk" and the "Vayarg".
The excuse China used for the purchase of the above two aircraft carriers was that they would be for the uses of recreation, disassembly, and waste steel recycling. A careful analysis will show that this excuse was not totally unreasonable. First of all, if these aircraft carriers are used for the purpose of disassembly, they are really of some commercial value as China has been looking for waste steel on the international market. On the other hand, the understanding of how to disassemble them means a more direct experience in how to make aircraft carriers. Furthermore, as the design drawings are required for the disassembly, China can easily request them from Russia and the Ukraine. A company from Macao purchased the "Vayarg" aircraft carrier for only 20 million US dollars. In fact, it takes several million dollars to have a Western ship building company design a new aircraft carrier and provide the relevant technical advice. It is easy to see the benefits from the deal.
In the aspect of "recreation", since the "Minsk" aircraft carrier arrived in Guangdong, the private company that purchased it has attracted a large number of visitors. It is easy to see that at least in appearance, the carrier was not directly purchased by the military. However, it may be the case where the private company spent the money but priority is given to the military research if needed. Normally, the "Minsk" has been used to satisfy the craving for aircraft carriers "fun" in China. This helps increase its commercial value and meet the market tendency of commercialization in the Chinese society. In the meantime, this civilian-military combination also saves military expenditures and helps to reduce the handles by which the "View of China's Threat" is held by some countries. According to the pictures of the "Minsk" aircraft carrier in China, it can be determined that the real condition of this aircraft carrier is much worse than one could imagine. All the combat weapons, the launchers, the electronic equipment, and the power system have been taken away. The aircraft carrier was towed to Guangdong by a tugboat from Korea. Due to the many years of corrosion by sea water, its hull is rusted and its outside structure is seriously damaged. Only the inside structure remains complete. Its military value is, at the most, limited to the on-the-spot study of its basic structure, layout design, and welding techniques, etc.
The news is true that the Chinese military has long been hoping to obtain the design drawings of the "Minsk" aircraft carrier. Remarks from Russian navy sources has proved the news to be true in 1993. At that time, Western military observers once predicted that China hoped to buy the "Minsk" aircraft carrier. Later, it was believed that Korea's purchase of it was nothing but a scheme and that the carrier would be moved to China before long. It is said that Russia's prerequisite for the sales of its design drawings was that China would purchase the scrapped aircraft carrier for a low price. Evidently, it is the design drawings themselves that the Chinese military were really interested in. This is because China needs the help in the aspect of the design concept during the feasibility study of the aircraft carrier. For the same reason, China also contacted the Spanish Bazan Shipyard in February of 1995 about sending the supply of design drawings for the AC200 aircraft carrier to China. In an exclusive interview earlier this year with the business official of the Bazan Shipyard in Malaysia by the author, he was quoted as saying that the talks had ended up with nothing definite.
The Chinese effort to actively look for aircraft carriers and their design drawings on the international market shows that the Chinese navy is further exploring the possibility of developing aircraft carriers on its own. It also shows that China hopes to become a country that can produce small and medium-sized aircraft carriers in order to enter the international aircraft carrier manufacturing market, especially in South-east Asian and South American countries. ( KWIC)