China’s ‘symbolic’ carrier threat

A top U.S. admiral says China's carrier is more a metaphor for its growing power than a real threat. How long will Beijing be content with symbolic warships?

The debut of the J-20 may have surprised the top echelons in DoD — although officials took pains to pretend it hadn’t — but the progress of China’s “first” “aircraft carrier,” the Varyag, is right in line with what the intel guys projected, says Pacific Command boss Adm. Robert Willard. The Varyag, an old Soviet-era ski-jump carrier that Chinese shipyard workers have spent many past months refurbishing, is mostly a “symbolic” expression of China’s growing military power, Willard said, although it will get a lot more literal when it sails with an air wing aboard.

Almost any naval type — even the biggest advocates of carrier aviation — can quote you Adm. Hyman Rickover’s legendary response to Sen. Robert Taft’s question about how long his beloved nuclear carriers would last in a World War III scenario against the Soviets: “About two days,” Rickover said. In today’s missile era, carriers would probably never fight each other in a Midway or Marianas-style sea battle, although China’s carrier ambitions have created the impression in some quarters that Beijing wants to challenge American blue-water supremacy. That may well be true, but that’s why China is growing its submarine force — and the inverse also applies.

No, the carrier, as Willard said, is a symbol: How many times have you seen an action movie with an establishing shot of an American aircraft carrier? Cut to a dark combat information center with big computer screens on the walls and stern, buzz-cut sailors frowning into their consoles. A handsome American admiral sets down his coffee cup (with its Navy Wings of Gold logo) and says: “All right, terrorists, you asked for it: Advise Saber Two-Six he’s cleared hot to engage.” In the context of American military might, this generic scene is both powerful and unremarkable. No wonder Chinese military commanders want something that creates such an impression.

Here’s something else about naval aviation: It’s really complicated. And it’s really, really, really expensive. When the Pentagon announced last month the Navy would be helping with the Japanese earthquake disaster response, and specifically that it would be offering its ships as refueling lily pads for Japanese helicopters, reporters were puzzled. Can Japanese helicopters… y’know… go … on American ships, they asked? As DoDBuzz readers know, of course they can — sailors on American ships know how to land, chock, chain, refuel and service all kinds of international helicopters. (It doesn’t hurt that Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force also flies many American-style Seahawk helos.) But that expertise about cross-decking is born from years and years of hard-won experience. As are your standard cats and traps, and maintenance, and all the other daily aspects of life that today’s U.S. Navy makes look easy.

Bottom line: The U.S. and the other members of the fixed-wing naval aviation club are good at it — or not — because of how much time and money they’ve spent doing it. The question for China will be whether it wants to spend that kind of time and money on a “symbol,” or whether its carriers are going to be real-life warships. Whichever course China takes, it’s worth paying attention.