Military & Aerospace

China’s Emergence as a Maritime Power
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 22 Jun , 2021

Indo-China face off in the north has become a permanent feature/fixture since 1962. Both nations have made attempts, mostly superficial, to resolve the boundary issue but to no avail. In foreseeable future there are less than ‘slim’ chances of boundary issue being resolved. LAC, not international border, will remain as it is. Border skirmishes, too, will continue to take place, hopefully without any loss of life on either side. Escalation to the level of ‘shooting match’ is not an option with either nation, China in particular.

Formidable Indian Air Power will remain as a major deterrent to China for attempting anything beyond contesting/questioning the patrolling areas. PLAAF ex TAR cannot support ground forces operation in the manner we can. Jammu, Udhampur, Srinagar, Awantipur, Leh and Thoise are operational IAF bases. Except for Leh and Thoise all other bases have elevation of less than 1.5 km. On the other hand all PLAAF bases, which can be used to launch PLAAF strike elements are located above 3 km.

The most important aspect of the so called ‘GALWAN CONFLICT’ is the emergence of national will to use force, Air Power in particular, to deter any Chinese misadventure. India is no longer India of 1962. China as an intelligent adversary has understood the message loud and clear.

Geography enables China to threaten Taiwan, Japan, Phillipines entirely because of its size and total military power. China’s ongoing ‘mis’ adventure in South China Sea by building artificial islands, placing weapons on few of those is mere gimmickery in strict military parlance. However rapid strides being made by China towards ship building (other than space) is indeed China’s most notable accomplishment that we must take note of. 

Both in numbers as well as operational capability, Indian Navy is far smaller. Chinese operational submarines is one of PLAN’s most formidable asset. China has made remarkable progress in building the most potent weapon platform, the aircraft carrier. Two platforms are already ‘FLOATING’. Third one is due to float in a few years time. With another three on the anvil. Hence PLAN might have upto six aircraft carriers floating in the South China Sea by 2035.

I have used the term ‘FLOATING’ on purpose. An aircraft carrier becomes a weapon platform only and only when it is equipped with suitable Strike Aircraft, Integral Surveillance Aircraft and impregnable anti submarine capability supplemented by mid air refueling for strike, AEW and Reccee aircraft for high loiter time. If any of these fundamental elements are absent or are of limited capability, the aircraft carrier cannot be termed as truly operational because of its inability to roam international waters at will.

Air component part of PLAN as it exists today in June, 2021 will now be elaborated upon.

Strike Element. As on date PLAN has only one operational aircraft, the J-15 for carrier operations. Record of J-15 operational utilization so far has been poor to abysmal. Also barely 40 aircraft are available. Serviceability has remained consistently low. Engine performance leaves a lot to be desired. Weapon carriage capability and operational radii of action is extremely limited. The other aircraft FC-31 is not even operational as on date. Claimed radii of action of J-15 with max weapon load is just about 450km. FC-31 is still under development. If internet data is to be believed FC-31 or its variants will take at least five, preferably ten years to be termed as fully operational carrier borne aircraft.

Slight digression from China to US Navy will be required to amplify the issue of strike aircraft capability launched from a carrier. As stated earlier, while a Carrier Battle Group is the most formidable and potent weapon platform grouping, it also is most vulnerable to enemy action. Air Forces all over the world believe in one fundamental precept; A dedicated strike aircraft will, always and every time, penetrate the most formidable and dense air defence environment. Those, who think differently, particularly when at sea must resort to wearing life jacket even while asleep.

In recent times most sustained strike aircraft operations were carried out by US Navy carriers in Iraq war. In spite of knowing fully well that Iraqi Air Force did not have an aircraft of suitable radii of action, which could strike a US Navy carrier, they remained at least TWICE THE RADII OF ACTION (ROA) of Iraqi Air Force aircraft, lest they decide to launch only one way operational mission. To elaborate further; if the best Iraqi Air Force aircraft had a radii of action of 500km, the US Navy carrier did not operate closer that 1000km plus the range of anti-shipping missile (say 100km), totaling 1100km.

In spite of double hulled carriers US Navy believes that two hits by current anti shipping missiles will sink a carrier. US Navy used upto seven aircraft carriers during Iraq war having more than 300 aircraft. All strike missions, without exception, used mid air refueling, both outbound as well as inbound because even F-18 fully loaded does not have ROA of over 1,000km.

PLAN as on date neither has such capability nor is likely to acquire it in near future (till at least 2030) primarily because PLAN does not have a proven strike aircraft in sufficient numbers. That is why the term ‘FLOATING’ was used earlier. As on date PLAN aircraft carriers are ‘floating’ because they lack genuine offensive capability. We are no better except that MiG-29K is a more reliable aircraft but with extremely limited ROA. We cannot call our or PLAN carriers as ‘STRIKE’ Carriers. With current aircraft these are mere Air Defence Ship’.

Why is the ROA important? If a strike aircraft with max load ROA of 450 km, takes off from a carrier to attack a target 400km away, the aircraft carrier must remain within 400 km of the intended target to recover the strike aircraft after the mission. If the adversary has suitable land based Air Power elements in the general area, the aircraft carrier will be threatened. No country with formidable Air Power elements located and suitably armed, will allow the carrier to get away. Indeed the striking aircraft will have to be prepared for huge attrition, may be 75%, but if one or two strike aircraft are able to reach/cross the Weapon Release Line (WRL), the carrier will be doomed and become an infungible asset at the bottom of the sea. A carrier within strike range of fighters will, always and every time, be the most sought after target.

Let us say in our case we have PLAN Carrier within range of land based fighters, IAF will/should have no qualms about launching the entire Su-30 squadron (16 aircraft) equipped with anti shipping missiles to sink the carrier. If 90% aircraft (14 out of 16) are shot down before reaching WRL, the two which will reach WRL will be enough to sink the carrier.

A sunk Aircraft Carrier will take few thousand men, few dozen aircraft and most importantly National Pride. Losing 16 IAF aircraft and bravehearts will be a very little price to pay. 

Way back in 1981 at DSSC, Wellington, I had propagated concept of ‘SINGLE RADIAL SUPER SATURATED ATTACK PROFILE’ to engage an aircraft carrier. 40 years later in 2021 there is no missile and/or anti aircraft gun system that will successfully engage 16 aircraft flying at an interval of 15 seconds between each from the same radial.

PLAN carriers have little or no operational capability outside South China Sea. Certainly not in Indian Ocean Region or Arabian Sea near our coast line. PLAN is at least two decades away from acquiring BLUE WATER NAVY capability. In present times there is only one Blue Water Navy in the world; the US Navy. France with two carriers and an indigeneous strike aircraft, the most modern Rafale is also not a true Blue Water Navy because it lacks an integral/indigeneous AEW aircraft.

An adversary must always be considered as a formidable opponent. But granting non-existing capability to an adversary is as harmful as granting non-existing capability to oneself.

PLAN Carriers will never sail through the Straits of Malacca for an offensive mission in foreseeable future until they have acquired above stated capabilities. A friendly visit to Indian shores will always be welcome.

China is being touted as the next Super Power by many Indian and Foreign military strategists. No article/opinion that too from an Air Power proponent can be complete unless Alfred Mahan, the great military strategist is mentioned. Alfred Mahan said; I quote “Control of the Seas is necessary for world power status (read super power)” Unquote. China is miles away to achieve such status. Sabre rattling by China must be viewed as a strategic musical concert.

China is at present a Regional Maritime Power. When will Indian military adopt the precept of ‘Show of Force’ is more important than the ‘Application of Force’. We are yet to do an operational sweep mission to and fro Straits of Malacca with Su-30s, P-8I,s and mid air refuellers busy doing fly pasts.

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One thought on “China’s Emergence as a Maritime Power

  1. A very good analysis and presentation. It is a correct analysis that we need to keep our heads down & retain steady priority for shipbuilding & do the catch-up act on numbers & superiority in quality of what we build. Greater emphasis on submarine construction, nuclear propelled hunter-killer types, must remain the National priority, at least for the foreseeable future so as to attain sea denial & sea control in the IOR’s region of interest. But beyond that we have to progress towards the ‘true blue-water potential’ as portrayed here. IAF will need necessary beefing up to maintain it’s deterrence value, whilst continuously enhancing their WRL. Until the indigenous Carrier capabilities are enhanced to the concept portrayed in this article, there can be no pause in constructing the Carrier stream & the order books must remain alive. Certainly, there can be no let in the stream of constructing the indigenous Carrier – lest the expertise & knowledge gained in constructing this large platform is lost to the nation, as had happened with respect to the HDW submarine construction.
    Concepts illuminating article.

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