The only object large enough to block out China’s Moon landing is an aircraft carrier. It’s closer for starters; real carrier fever will break out around 2017, should China continue on its present course. Maybe sooner.
“I think they are making a strong effort to advance the idea of making an aircraft carrier operational between now and 2015,” says Admiral Robert F Willard, chief of United States Pacific Command (USPACOM), which includes China.
A Moon landing isn’t scheduled until 2020 and lunar bases until 2025 and beyond. But like China’s space ambition, its naval strategy must be view through a long-term lens and not the next decade specifically. China has no reason to operate a carrier fleet - for now.
It has every reason to build one over the next century.
"Building aircraft carriers is a symbol of an important nation. It is very necessary," Admiral Hu Yanlin, political commissioner of the PLA Navy from 2003 to 2008, said in 2009. “China has the capability to build aircraft carriers, and should do so.”
US Navy officials never doubted China’s long term intentions. In their minds the carriers are already built, and have begun designing new Naval tactics, machinery, and technology accordingly. They’ve taken the change of events in stride.
The hegemony war over Earth’s oceans has already begun.
At this point US officials are primarily focused on what China will do with its carrier fleet. Transparency is an issue. China’s military budget, officially stated at 71$ billion, is considered to be at least triple that figure. This leads to questions of what China’s buying and from whom, which leads to what it will do with its new purchases.
Having already purchased one unfinished Russian carrier, the Varyag, and the designs for another, the Ulyanovsk, Russia has accused China of copying/stealing designs of its carrier-based Sukhoi Su-33 fighter aircraft. These acquisitions have allowed China to leap ahead in designing its own carrier.
"When we see a military growing at that rate, we're interested in transparency and the understanding of the uses of that military," said Rear Adminal Kevin Donegan, commander of the USS George Washington aircraft carrier strike group. “I am absolutely concerned.”
A common doubt is that China has no real need for aircraft carriers since power projection appears to be at odds with a peaceful rise. Well aware that its military expansion, notably a blue water navy, is perceived as a threat, China is playing its non-interference policy for all it’s worth.
Wu Shengli, admiral of the PLA Navy, unveiled China’s latest submarines along with information on its carriers at a 60th anniversary celebration. Shegli promised that his Navy will pursue “peace, harmony and co-operation” in international waters.
“Suspicions about China being a 'threat' to world security are mostly because of misunderstandings and lack of understandings about China," Wu's deputy, Vice-Admiral Ding Yiping, told the state-owned Xinhua. "The suspicions would disappear if foreign counterparts could visit the Chinese navy and know about the true situation."
Admiral Yanlin had similarly cautioned earlier in March, “There should be nothing to be afraid of as you can see China's major neighbors all have had their own aircraft carriers.”
Without too much disrespect to China, this is a complete load. A carrier fleet isn’t a dagger behind a smile but a wide mouthful of daggers. At least two core applications exist for home grown Chinese aircraft carriers.
The first is pure power projection. China is happy to cede the oceans to America for this decade and possibly the next, thereby reducing the chances of becoming entrapped in foreign affairs during its economic boom. Aware that America’s many military responsibilities on the world stage can actually drag down its sovereignty, China is content to play the waiting game and stockpile its wealth.
Trade and energy are likely to be used for short-term cover.
India’s Navy Chief, Admiral Nirmal Verma, has said, “that the Chinese have an interest in the region because a bulk of their trade flows through the Indian Ocean. The bulk of the energy requirements as far as China is concerned flows through the Indian Ocean region. It is a very substantial amount.”
But, anticipating an eventual comedown, China seeks to fill every inch of water America voids when the opportunity presents itself, whether 10 or 50 years from now. This could lead to carrier battle groups off Hawaii, Australia, Africa, and maybe even in the Mediterranean Sea.
Since US carriers already rub up against China’s territorial waters, it would not be surprising if China eventually responded in kind.
From its new blue platform China could launch a variety of missions to achieve multiple goals. International security missions will raise its standing while a carrier may join an American war-time alliance in the Middle East or Africa. The option of unilateral war also remains open, and the mere threat changes how every other world power operates militarily.
Ultimately China wants to project more power than America when the 21st century ends and a carrier fleet is integral to this goal. Imitation is competition, not flattery.
There is also a strong possibility that China is utilizing a carrier fleet - and the rumor itself - as economic warfare against India and America. Aircraft carriers are among the costliest military expenditures in existence, from the crafts themselves to fighter aircraft to support craft, to the complex information systems that give them life.
“I may tell you that aircraft carrier operations are very expensive and complex and require a great deal of training and dedication,” Admiral Willard said.
Fortunately for China, and unfortunately for everyone else, it has the funds and its people excel in training and dedication. China outpaces India’s economy whether measured by nominal or PPP GDP; China weighs in at 4.4$ billion and 8$ billion, India at 1.2$ billion and 3.2$ billion.
Clearly feeling the pressure of China’s long-term naval ambitions, India purchased the INS Vikramaditya, formerly the Admiral Gorshkov, in 2004 with hopes of designing its own carrier some day. It’s also stocking up on Russian MiG 29Ks to the tune of billions of dollars.
The spending spree, which is still in its infancy, has prompted concern that India can’t keep up with China’s long-term naval ambitions.
Though the US economy is vastly superior to India’s, the fear that China is pushing America towards the proverbial Soviet cliff is just as real. Keeping pace isn’t an option for Washington - it must keep ahead. America could conceivably spend untold billions simply as a reaction to China’s intention to build aircraft carriers.
Staying ahead comes with a steep hike in military spending.
China is also hoping to limit its own carrier costs though measures like, “its growing space information complex and deploying complementary ground based long-range radar and electronic intelligence systems to client states... sea-based versions of its long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles to support deployed carrier groups... the deployment of anti-aircraft missiles capable of taking out low Earth orbit satellites.”
The objective seems to be forcing its rivals to spend as much possible while spending as little as possible on its own carrier fleet, then capitalizing wherever the oceans open up.
A multi-layered strategy fits snugly with China’s view of 21st century warfare.