China’s carrier sets sail for sea trials

The official news agency reports that China's carrier Shi Lang is underway for the first time as a Chinese warship.

The Chinese aircraft carrier Shi Lang put to sea for the first time on Wednesday, according to the state news agency, on what will likely be the first of many short trips as the ship’s crew and yard workers complete its refit. Although helicopters have taken off and landed on the Shi Lang while it’s been docked, it wasn’t clear from the reporting whether flight operations will be a part of this cruise. Chinese officials may not release images or information about fixed wing flight operations in particular until they’ve mastered them, so it could be weeks or months before the public learns what the ship can do.

By their own account, Chinese commanders consider the Shi Lang an experiment, at best, a training ship for their sailors and aviators. As the People’s Liberation Army-Navy learns what to do and what not to do in operating a carrier their way, those lessons will probably be incorporated into China’s own indigenous ships. As you’ve read here, China wants at least three more carriers, and between its own lessons and the ones it may have … ahem … borrowed from the U.S. Navy, there’s no telling what its home-grown ships could end up looking like.

Via Galrahn, here’s some interesting analysis about this from Andrew Erickson, who wonders about such things as the reliability of the Shi Lang’s propulsion plant — a carrier needs to be able to make itself go not only so it isn’t stranded at sea, but to create wind over the deck for its aircraft. Erickson also writes that, if you’re one of those ┬áChina Castration Anxiety, inevitable-decline-of-America types, it’ll be awhile before the PLA-Navy gets to parity with the U.S. Navy:

Prof. Robert Rubel (CAPT, Ret.), a former U.S. Naval Aviator who is now Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the U.S. Naval War College, notes that between 1949, when jets started being deployed in large numbers by the U.S. Navy, until 1988, when the combined U.S. Navy/USMC accident rate was lowered to USAF levels, the naval services lost almost 12,000 aircraft and 8,500 aircrew. In 1954 alone, the Navy and Marines lost 776 aircraft and 535 crewmen and carrier-based tactical aviation suffered higher proportionate losses than the naval services as a whole.

To be sure, China has resolved some of the most fundamental physical issues involved in launching and landing aircraft from a small moving airfield, but the process remains immensely difficult and even a less-aggressive carrier operator than the U.S. is almost certain to suffer substantial unexpected losses of aircraft and crew as it works to build its operational knowledge and human capital. It remains uncertain what financial and political costs Chinese carrier aircraft losses will incur, but clearly the first Chinese carrier aviators and ship captains face steep challenges ahead. Still, after waiting over eight decades for a carrier of its own, China can afford to be patient and methodical in mastering its operation.

True on all counts. And if China really wants to copy American seapower, it needs to be able to field integrated carrier strike groups, complete with surface escorts and submarines. It may not want to, though, because as we’ve observed before, China’s nascent seapower isn’t designed for fighting the United States — yet. It’s for imposing its will on all its weaker neighbors in the Western Pacific, and communicating, as much internally as externally, that China is once again an expeditionary power.