Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Chinese Aircraft Carrier?

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

July 28, 2009

When I was 11, my uncle worked in the Pentagon. Knowing that I was interested in military issues, he once sent me “Soviet Military Power,” a yearly report provided to Congress. It may have seemed like odd reading for a kid, but I found it absolutely fascinating. Filled with glossy pictures, tables, and graphs, it laid out in almost loving detail the overwhelming danger presented by the Soviet military. Indeed, after reading how they outnumbered us four to one in nearly every weapon we had, one almost wondered why we were even bothering to try to fight them. There was only one problem: The Cold War hype in “Soviet Military Power” turned out to be as hollow as the Red Army itself.

I thought about this recently when reading the arguments in our defense futures planning. In trying to justify Cold War-era structures, people often point to the danger presented by the rise of another “peer” state that is building a blue-water fleet just like our own. This is Pentagonese for China as a “rising sea dragon,” with their desire to match our aircraft carriers perhaps the most widely cited manifestation of their menace.

At the center of the discussion is usually the Chinese purchase of the Varyag, a 65,000-ton carrier. Many analysts draw significance from the reports that the formerly Russian ship has been renamed Shi Lang, after the Ming Dynasty admiral who conquered Taiwan in 1681. The Shi Lang is reputed to be just the start, with the Chinese reportedly planning to build another two aircraft carriers by 2015 and two more by 2020.

But a little reality check may be in order. First, their “new” carrier is not all that new. Actually, the Varyag was first laid down back in 1985. Originally planned for the Soviet fleet, it was never completed. Instead, at the Cold War’s end, it was scrapped of all its electronics and engines and sold off to be a floating casino. Even if the Chinese can refurbish it, at best they will be getting an old, untested ship that carries only a third as many planes as a U.S. carrier.

Similarly, the idea that the Chinese can build four new carriers over the next decade is less than realistic. It takes approximately six years to build one of our aircraft carriers, and we have been doing this for more than eight decades. By comparison, the biggest warship the Chinese have yet to build on their own is 17,000 tons, a quarter the size. More importantly, building a ship is not the same as operating it successfully.

Don’t get me wrong: Just as the overhyping of the Soviet menace didn’t mean there was no threat at all from the Red Army, the emptiness of any Chinese aircraft carrier threat in the near term doesn’t mean there is nothing to worry about in the current Chinese military buildup.

Rather, as we wrestle with defense planning, we should focus less on fictional capabilities that will likely never match our strengths and more on the real, near-term capabilities the Chinese are building to defeat these strengths from other angles. Their computer hackers have reportedly obtained access to vital military and civil communications networks, as well as the designs of our latest jet fighters. Their submarines have snuck past the defenses of our aircraft carriers and surfaced, a little showoff of how they could have sunk them at will. Their army is presently obtaining anti-ship ballistic missiles able to target a warship 1,500 miles away, far past the range of the planes from our aircraft carriers.

In short, the military dynamic in the Pacific is changing. But it is not because the Chinese may one day gain a small number of their own, far-worse aircraft carriers. It is what they are planning to do to overcome our own aircraft carriers and other traditional strengths.

The Soviet military menace I read about as a youth turned out not to be all that strong. Indeed, it was a good thing they invested so much in exactly what the report warned; it proved to be wasted energy that eventually ran their very economy into the ground. One hopes that we will think the same way eventually about a wasted Chinese investment in military capabilities like our own, rather our own investments to stop it, by looking in the wrong direction.