- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

BEIJING (AP) - China’s navy has added sophisticated nuclear submarines, destroyers and missile systems, but the holy grail of surface ships _ an aircraft carrier _ has stayed out on the horizon. That may be about to change.

The navy will have one “very soon,” says the commander of the East China Fleet, Adm. Xu Hongmeng. The navy’s commander, Adm. Wu Shengli, spoke last week of plans for “large combat warships,” an apparent reference to carriers.

The comments come ahead of an unprecedented international fleet review Thursday marking the 60th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and spotlighting its recent rapid development.

The navy is expected to take on even more ambitious goals in the next few years as it seeks to strengthen its ability to operate far from coastal bases and boost China’s international prestige.

“As China’s navy takes on missions that go beyond simple coastal defense, an aircraft carrier becomes an obvious addition to maritime power projection platforms,” said John Pike, a defense analyst and director of GlobalSecurity.org.

In his remarks to the official Xinhua News Agency, Wu said the navy would speed up development of a technologically advanced, oceangoing fleet, stepping away from its traditional missions of coastal protection and blocking permanent independence for Taiwan.

No Chinese official has offered a specific time frame for putting a carrier in the water or said how many might be built.

Operating a carrier would be a step toward a “sea-control capability” in northeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, a strategy that could bring Beijing into conflict with the U.S., Japan, South Korea and India and raise doubts about Beijing’s self-declared defensive military posture, Pike said.

“It is not clear how such a long-range power projection and sea control strategy would fit in with China’s peaceful rise,” he said.

Having a carrier allows a navy to operate fixed-wing aircraft beyond the range of aircraft based on land. That would be key on missions to defend China’s territorial aspirations, especially in the South China Sea, where a half-dozen countries have overlapping claims.

U.S. officials say they don’t think a Chinese carrier would pose much of a threat to their operations in the region, although that would depend on how China intended to use it.

In China to attend this week’s festivities, Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of U.S. naval operations, said Sunday there is “no doubt in my mind” that Beijing wants a carrier, but he said American forces would take such a development in stride.

“The advent of an aircraft carrier on the part of the PLA Navy, to me, really doesn’t change the nature of our operations at all,” Roughead said.

China insists it has both the financial muscle and shipbuilding ability to construct and operate a carrier, and the development of sophisticated new home-built vessels seems to support that view.

Such expansion has been made possible by two decades of near-annual double-digit increases in military spending. China has announced a 14.9 percent rise in military spending in its 2009 budget, to 480.6 billion yuan ($70.3 billion).

The 225,000-sailor People’s Liberation Army Navy already operates more submarines than any other Asian nation, with up to 10 nuclear-powered vessels and as many as 60 diesel-electric subs. It boasts almost 80 destroyers and frigates _ more than a dozen of which have entered service since the 1990s _ along with hundreds of smaller craft and support ships.

China’s second-generation, nuclear-powered Jin and Shang class submarines are considered just a notch below cutting-edge U.S. and Russian craft. The diesel-electric Yuan class boasts a Chinese-developed air-independent propulsion system that allows it to remain submerged for weeks, while Chinese Luyang destroyers and Jiangkai missile frigates incorporate stealth features and a mix of latest-generation Chinese and Russian weapon systems.

Still, operating an aircraft carrier requires orchestrating a highly complex matrix of sailors, aircraft, missile defenses, power plants, support ships, fuel and weather. In that, the Chinese navy has little experience.

“Carrier operations are very complex, difficult, and dangerous,” said retired Rear Adm. Eric McVadon, a former U.S. Navy pilot who is now director of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis. “China’s current navy is not designed for carrier warfare.”

McVadon speculated China would build up to three modest carriers considerably smaller than the U.S. Navy’s 100,000-ton displacement Nimitz class carriers.

Unconfirmed reports have emerged on the Internet pointing to the construction of a dedicated carrier-building dock outside Shanghai, although Pike said China has been building large ships for many years and shipyard capacity should prove no obstacle.

“It’s easy to imagine that China would have at least one aircraft carrier by the year 2020, but such vessels take a long time to build and outfit, so I imagine the world will have about five years advance notice of such a ship,” Pike said.

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