Naval Air: December 12, 2002

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A debate is raging within the Chinese navy over the need for aircraft carriers. Having bought some surplus Russian carriers, and carefully examined the possibility of refurbishing them and putting them into service, the issue of cost is looming larger. It would take billions of dollars and perhaps ten years to get two carriers ready for action. Since the U.S. would probably have four carriers off China in the event of a war, China would need two, operating mostly within range of land based warplanes, to possibly make a difference. But given the U.S. Navy's track record, the Chinese have concluded that their two carriers wouldn't last long, even with the help of land based fighters and bombers. While the carriers could be useful for showing the flag in peacetime (to keep the neighbors properly respectful of Chinese power), for gunboat diplomacy as needed, and a possible invasion of Taiwan, some naval officers point out that many more other ships and weapons can be bought for the cost of putting one or two carriers into service. It is pointed out that America has the most effective nuclear subs in the world and these would find Chinese carriers excellent targets. Moreover, the carriers would be seen as symbols of China's might by the Chinese people. If the carriers were kept in port during a war with America, the navy and government would look cowardly. If the navy explained that the carriers were defenseless against American nuclear subs, popular opinion would see the navy as stupid. These same critics point out that buying more anti-ship missiles would be a better move. These could be launched from land, from small ships, submarines or aircraft. Aircraft carriers are weapons from an older age, and very vulnerable. Missiles are seen as new, and are relatively cheap and more easily upgraded with more effective electronics. For what is spent on one or two carriers, you can buy thousands of missiles. This debate is not yet settled, but it looks like the carrier admirals are on the ropes.

 


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