China Hegemony,PLAN

Chinese President Xi, centre in green military uniform, poses with soldiers on a navy ship

Last week, China resorted to an orchestrated show of force in the South China Sea. In a naval parade consisting of 48 naval vessels, 06 nuclear powered submarines, 76 aircraft, and aircraft carrier Liaoning, the PLAN sent a loud message to its opponents in the Western Pacific. Coming as it did just days after the USS Theodore Roosevelt displayed its prowess in the South China Sea, the PLAN exercise -- presided over by President Xi himself -- served a clear warning to the US Navy.

More worryingly, there are reports that China is likely to begin sea trials of its new fully indigenous aircraft carrier, the Type 001A (Shandong). Many in India are seeing this development as an announcement of China’s maritime ambition in the Indian Ocean. At 70,000 tons loaded displacement, armed with 24 J-15 fighter aircraft, an advanced point defense weapons (HQ-10 batteries), and a modern S-band radar, the 001A surpasses the INS Vikramaditya, which is not only smaller, but also less capable. The Shandong will be commissioned in a fraction of the time the Indian navy is likely to take to get its own indigenous flattop on-line. Indian observers worry that if the PLAN makes good on its stated aim of deploying significant naval power in the far-West, India’s strategic leverage in the Indian Ocean will be severely undermined.

This is not to suggest China’s flattops are likely to project power in India’s neighbourhood any time soon. Notwithstanding the rapid installation of sensors, weapons, and equipment on the 001A, significant challenges lie ahead. Not the least of these is the need to integrate the ship’s air-wing with fleet operations.

In order to be a major expeditionary force in the Indo-Pacific region, PLAN operations managers need to coordinate fighter operations with electronic attack aircraft, sea-based anti-air defense and anti-submarine warfare helicopters. But for that to happen, the 001A will first need to embark its full complement of aircraft.

 

The second imperative for PLAN managers is to improve operations efficiency. Chinese engineers are reported to be working on integrated command and control networks that can enable simultaneous operations of diverse platforms and deployment of multiple capabilities for maximum combat effectiveness. The problem for China is that both Liaoning and Shandong are Short Take-off and Barrier Assisted Landing (STOBAR) carriers, which do not operate heavy fixed-wing airborne early warning and control aircraft. More crucially, the performance of the J-15— the PLAN’s only carrier borne fighter -- remains unproven so far. Its limited payload and fuel capacity indicates a restricted power projection capability.

Training of pilots is another big factor likely to delay the eventual deployment of the 001A in Indian waters. While China has been using the Liaoning for training operations, PLAN aviators have yet to achieve the technical and tactical skills to carry out operations such as over-the-horizon targeting, assisted and coordinated operations, and integrated and joint missions.

The training of the deck crews too is likely to be a time consuming affair. Aircraft carrier operations involve traditional aviation tasks such as refueling and rearming in cramped conditions, requiring long hours of precision training. The PLAN’s carrier command-teams are also struggling to synchronize operations with the rigidly regimented and structured Chinese air force. Chinese naval planners know that the Shandong’s air-operations will need better coordination than was the case last week, when the Liaoning operated aircraft in the South China Sea.

Logistics poses another problem for China’s naval planners. While the PLAN has a token logistical flotilla, its fleet of semi-submersible ships has limited military use and are confined largely to the South China Sea. Tellingly, the Liaoning has yet to undertake a voyage far from the Chinese coast, limiting its forays to the Western Pacific. This has led to a rethink in China’s security establishment on ensuring naval logistical support beyond East Asia.

To be sure, China’s logistical hub in Djibouti is a significant advancement. Beijing is reportedly keen to develop the facility and has even setup a Joint Logistic Support Force at the site. In order to protect its maritime lifelines and its growing interests overseas, Beijing last year announced plans for the deployment of marines in Djibouti and Gwadar, a Chinese constructed port on Pakistan’s Makran coast.

 

And yet, if China intends to influence the power dynamics of South Asia, it will need to deploy its aircraft carriers around India’s maritime periphery in sustained fashion. This would require access to supply, storage, and repair centers in the Central and Eastern Indian Ocean, which the PLAN has so far been unable to obtain.

If is then entirely likely that the PLAN’s flattops would, in the short run, be used more for peacetime signaling and soft power projection in the Indian Ocean. While this may in itself be a troubling prospect for India, it is unlikely to erode New Delhi’s operational and political leverage in the Indian Ocean. China knows its access agreements and commercial facilities will not be able to provide the materiel support to engage in large-scale naval combat with India. But even if Beijing does setup a military logistics infrastructure chain in the Indian Ocean, its sites are all likely to be within the range of Indian strike aircraft and missiles.

Even if Beijing does setup a military logistics infrastructure chain in the Indian Ocean, its sites are all likely to be within the range of Indian strike aircraft and missiles.

 

Notwithstanding the symbolism of China’s first large aircraft carrier crossing the penultimate threshold of induction into service, the PLAN isn’t about to take over India’s nautical neighborhood. The Chinese navy may have arrived in the Indian Ocean, but it will take time to project real combat power in New Delhi’s perceived sphere of influence.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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