Inside the Ring: China’s aircraft-less carrier

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China celebrated the commissioning this week of its first aircraft carrier with blustering statements and warnings to neighbors in Asia that the warship will help China settle its numerous maritime disputes.

However, the aircraft carrier Liaoning has one major deficiency: No warplanes so far have been observed taking off from or landing on the ship — making its current utility as a strategic power projection tool questionable.

U.S. intelligence agencies for years closely watched the carrier, a refurbished Soviet-era vessel, during its 10 sea trials. To date, there are no photos showing aircraft taking off from or landing on its ski-jump deck.

The closest the Chinese have come to an actual aircraft on board was a J-15 jet “mock-up” seen with wings folded on the deck during the ship’s ninth sea trial in July. It is believed the jet was placed on board by a crane.

Intelligence agencies have spotted Chinese jets for years conducting short takeoffs and landings at an inland airfield.

But analysts so far do not believe the Chinese military has the expertise needed for aircraft operations from the carrier, something the U.S. Navy has specialized in for decades.

By contrast, U.S. carrier pilots are among the most skilled aviators in the world, and for decades have had the unique ability to conduct hundreds of takeoffs and landings on pitching warship decks in daylight, darkness and bad weather, according to observations by Inside the Ring after spending two nights aboard the USS George Washington in the Persian Gulf several years ago.

China’s state-run press and vibrant Internet also failed to make any mention of the lack of warplanes on the prized carrier.

It is not known why the carrier lacks jets, and speculation has focused on the lack of carrier-modified aircraft and trained pilots for such operations. Another theory is that the Chinese air force and navy are so uncoordinated that they have not developed a carrier aviation capability.

The carrier could be used for attack helicopters, although none has been spotted on the ship.

Chinese commentary has hailed the new carrier as an event on par with China’s first underground test of a nuclear weapon in 1964.

“Nearly 100 years after the world’s first aircraft carrier was built, China, as the world’s second largest economy and most populous country, eventually has its own aircraft carrier,” the state-run Xinhua news agency said in a commentary, noting the Liaoning is a “landmark” for China's military buildup.

Following Beijing’s main propaganda theme that its arms buildup is peaceful, the commentary stated that “China will not join any arms race, pose a threat to other countries or exceed its national and economic strength to develop arms.”

“There is no need of panic about whether China has an aircraft carrier or how many aircraft carriers China has,” Xinhua said, without mentioning the lack of carrier jets.

A China Daily report on the carrier sounded a more threatening tone: “China should continue to modernize its military forces step by step, including the building of aircraft carriers. When China has a more balanced and powerful navy, the regional situation will be more stable as various forces that threaten regional peace will no longer dare to act rashly.”

China already is building its first domestic carrier at a shipyard near Shanghai and is expected to build at least two more, according to defense officials. “We expect China to build at least one indigenous carrier, probably two or more,” an official told Inside the Ring last year.

The Liaoning’s commander, Adm. Zhang Zheng, an English-speaking officer, told state television that pilots still need training for the ship and noted that the deck is short, thus requiring new safety procedures for aircraft.

“The aircraft carrier is the largest [ship] in the Chinese navy, and we don’t have enough experiences on running this type of ship,” Adm. Zheng said.

Richard Fisher, a specialist on China's military, said the only signs of aircraft operations are center-line skid marks that appear to have been made by rubber from jet tires, or possibly helicopters.

Other observers say the rubber marks could be a deception designed to fool intelligence agencies into thinking the carrier has tested or trained with jets.

China is trying to compress what has been seven decades of aircraft carrier and carrier air wing development for the United States into one decade,” said Mr. Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

Mr. Fisher said China already has proven former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wrong in his 2009 prediction that China will not field significant numbers of advanced jet fighters by 2025.

China has also blown out of the water the Pentagon’s 2002 assessment that ‘China appears to have set aside indefinitely plans to acquire an aircraft carrier,’ ” he said.

Iranian cyber attacks

Iran’s government is suspected of conducting covert cyberattacks against U.S. financial institutions, adding a new dimension to what defense officials say is a covert war against the West.

Among the reported targets of the cyberattack are Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc.

A recent Joint Staff J-2 intelligence report on the Iranian cyberattacks stated: “Iran’s cyber-aggression should be viewed as a component, alongside efforts like support for terrorism, to the larger covert war Tehran is waging against the West.”

U.S. officials with access to intelligence reports said the attacks were “denial of service” strikes that sought to disrupt the banks’ Internet sites and corporate networks through mass emails.

Some cybersecurity officials suspect the attacks were in response to increased economic sanctions against Iran.

One possible source for the attacks is said to be an Iranian cybergroup called the Iranian DataCoders Security Team. That group claimed credit for hitting nearly 400 Israeli Internet sites, including commercial businesses and government-related security and economic sites.

Among those targeted in the cyberattacks against Israel, supposedly over a U.S.-produced anti-Islam video, were websites belonging to Israel Special Security Projects, Teva Bank and Ono Security. The Ono Security firm is an important Israeli supplier and importer of security systems and products.

Navy secretary faulted on names

Naval analyst Norman Polmar has taken Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to task for giving three ships names that violate past procedures and involve controversial people.

Mr. Polmar wrote in the current issue of the Navy League’s Sea Power magazine that a Navy report in July on policies for naming ships failed to address the controversy.

Naval historians, active duty and retired Navy and Marine Corps officials, along with members of Congress, are upset with Mr. Mabus for naming an amphibious transport dock ship after the late Rep. John P. Murtha, an ammunition cargo ship after leftist labor leader Cesar Chavez, and a littoral combat ship after former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was wounded in a mass shooting in Phoenix.

For 50 years, amphibious transport dock ships have been named for cities, most taken from cities named after explorers.

Mr. Polmar said naming the ship after Murtha was wrong because the congressman “had publicly called eight U.S. Marines ‘cold-blooded killers’ for the deaths of 24 unarmed Iraqi men, women and children in Haditha, Iraq, in 2005.”

“The case culminated with all but one Marine being found not guilty, or having their charges dropped,” Mr. Polmar wrote.

The Navy sought to justify the Murtha by claiming it was consistent with using the names of famous elected leaders, an assertion Mr. Polmar rejected by noting that such a claim “attempts to justify any political naming decision.”

Mr. Polmar also questioned Mr. Mabus for naming a ship after Chavez, whom the Navy secretary noted could be rated a “hero” even though Chavez called his time in the Navy “the worst two years of my life.”

“Mr. Mabus would have done better to have named a building at a Marine base or Navy facility for Murtha and Chavez,” Mr. Polmar wrote. “Or, the secretary could have prevailed upon the administration to name a federal park or bridge for those men. Then, people who would have wanted to honor those individuals could have done so, without being assigned to serve in those ships.”

Mr. Polmar also said the “most undesirable naming action” by the Navy secretary was the combat ship named for Mrs. Giffords.

“She had no congressional record of special legislation supporting the Navy or Marine Corps during her brief career in the House of Representatives, nor had she served in the military,” Mr. Polmar said. “Her husband, Mark Kelly, is a [retired] Navy captain and astronaut.”

The Navy report said the decision for naming the Giffords was to “pay tribute” to all 535 members of Congress.

“Did neither the secretary nor any of the authors of the report realize that scores of U.S. Navy destroyers, attack submarines, ballistic missile submarines and aircraft carriers have been named for members of Congress and could thus be considered to be a ‘tribute to all 535 members of Congress?’ ” Mr. Polmar wrote.

The analyst suggested that Congress pass legislation that would require ship naming to be shared by both the executive and legislative branches.

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About the Author
Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

Mr. ...

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