China’s shipbuilders have been progressing at breakneck speed, with the recent launch of large-deck amphibious warfare ships, new nuclear and conventional submarines and rumours of a steadily larger, more capable aircraft carrier fleet serving as a catalyst for regional competition, while challenging the preconceptions of many Western strategic policy thinkers.
Throughout the history of naval warfare, platforms, doctrine and the very concept of maritime-based power projection and sea control have evolved – beginning with the Second World War, aircraft carriers, advanced guided-missile cruisers, destroyers and frigates, and increasingly conventional and nuclear powered submarines emerged as the pinnacle of maritime prestige and power projection.
Nevertheless, the advent of advanced, integrated anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems, including the 'introduction' of hypersonic weapons systems, has resulted in many within the Western strategic policy community, including many Australian commentators, including the infamous Hugh White to declare the end of the surface combatant.
There is just one problem, someone forgot to tell China – in the last decade, Chinese shipbuilders have built more than 100 warships, a building rate that outstrips the US and its allies. Raising concerns is the increasing number of advanced, highly capable surface combatants and submarines that now make up the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
Aircraft carriers, advanced surface combatants like cruisers, destroyers and frigates and increasingly capable nuclear and conventional submarines serve as the core of this build up – diminishing the qualitative and quantitative advantages enjoyed by the US and key regional and global allies including South Korea, Japan and Australia.
While the US enjoys a substantial quantitative and qualitative lead over the Chinese PLAN, with a fleet of 11 nuclear-powered supercarriers and two currently under construction, China's strategic planners know that they don't need to exercise global maritime hegemony in the way the US does.
In recent years, Indo-Pacific Asia has seen a growing number of traditional aircraft carriers and large deck, amphibious warfare ships being used to secure sea-lines-of-communication and maritime borders, while acting as potent power projection platforms through the use of amphibious operations and marine units, with China's ambitions of developing a truly blue water navy driving the growth.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea (SCS) and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
Meanwhile, the Indian Ocean and its critical global sea-lines-of-communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world's seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy.
China's growing power projection fleet
Despite repeated commentary about the demise of major surface combatants, particularly aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious warfare ships, China recognises the continued role and importance of such investments, particularly in terms of sea-control, power projection and deterrence roles as the rising superpower seeks to expand its regional ambitions.
China is the relative newcomer to the regional flat top race but is rapidly establishing itself as a regional carrier super power, with the recent introduction of the Type 001 and Type 001A Class carriers, based heavily upon the Russian Kuznetsov Class aircraft carriers.
Liaoning (CV-16), the first Chinese carrier (Type 001), was commissioned in 2012 and provides a potent, 58,600-tonne, 304.5-metre platform capable of supporting an airwing of 40 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, including the Shenyang J-15, a Chinese variant of the Russian designed Su-33 Flanker D, and a limited fleet of domestic anti-submarine warfare, maritime patrol, airborne command and control support helicopters.
In contrast, CV-17 (Type 001A), the second Chinese carrier commissioned earlier this year and an enlarged variant of the Liaoning, is a 70,000-tonne, 315-metre vessel with a similar airwing capacity of 40 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft.
Both vessels use short take-off, but arrested recovery (STOBAR) ski-ramp configurations, which limit the offensive and defensive capabilities of the platform.
Recognising the limitation of these platforms, China has plans to field an expanded carrier force incorporating a fleet of large, conventionally powered catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) aircraft carriers – to be designated the Type 002.
China's carrier ambitions are not limited to these two platforms, with increasingly capable aircraft carrier designs currently in varying stages of design or construction. The Type 002 carrier, expected to be commissioned in 2023, will be a traditional, CATOBAR-based vessel, weighing in at 80-90,000 tonnes.
These vessels will complement the Type 001 and Type 001A with a comparatively large fleet of up to four nuclear-powered supercarriers expected to be similar in size and capability to the US Nimitz and Ford Class carriers, supporting an airwing of between 70 and 100 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft that would serve as the mainstay of the Chinese naval force, focused on Chinese power projection and resource security.
This progress is in line with timeline targets for the Chinese aircraft carrier program, with plans for the ship to be launched in 2020 and the vessel expected to enter active service in 2023, marking a major turning point in the capability of the PLAN.
The Type 002 is expected to incorporate a range of advancements over the Liaoning and CV-17 vessels, including an electro-magnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) similar to the system expected to be introduced on the US Ford Class carriers.
Incorporating the next-generation launch system will enable the carriers to launch and recover a range of advanced aircraft – including advanced, fixed-wing airborne early warning and control aircraft, an increased carrier air wing and an advanced ship-borne active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar system to integrate within the supporting carrier strike group.
The next evolution of China's carrier force provides a launching point for the nuclear-powered Type 003 aircraft carrier.
Currently understood to be in the design phase, the Type 003 will serve as the basis of China's power projection focused aircraft carrier force and is expected to be constructed at the Jiangnan Shipyard, which is currently undergoing a series of modernisation and expansion programs to accommodate an increase in the Chinese carrier fleet.
Meanwhile, large-deck amphibious warfare ships provide a lower tier, yet equally important means of long-range, power projection and sea control.
While the established Indo-Pacific powers have established and modernised their fleets of large-deck amphibious warfare ships like the Canberra, Hyuga, Izumo and Dokdo Class vessels respectively and tailored their respective force structures to operate with a degree of autonomy or within the confines of larger US Navy-led carrier or expeditionary strike groups – China, as the emerging regional and global power, is starting from scratch.
Nevertheless, the recently launched Type 075 and the supporting fleet of Type 071 landing platform docks (LPD), similar in function to the Royal Australian Navy's HMAS Choules and the US Navy's San Antonio Class vessels – which are designed to provide supporting tactical and strategic sealift for amphibious expeditionary units, including the People's Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) and the broader PLA force structure.
The Type 071 has seen a major ramp-up in production, with the seventh and eighth vessels expected to be commissioned in the coming 18 months providing a larger amphibious capability for Chinese decision-makers – while little is known about the class, it is expected that the Type 071 has a full displacement of approximately 25,000 tons and can accommodate four 13-ton helicopters, along with 20 armoured vehicles and four Chinese-designed LCAC hovercraft to support amphibious landings.
Further rounding out the PLAN's growing amphibious capacity is the fleet of various landing tank ships (LST), of which China currently operates up to 32 vessels of various sizes each capable of transporting a range of both PLANMC and PLA ground forces, up to and including armour, artillery and infantry, providing China's decision-makers with a powerful tactical and strategic force multiplier.
Finally, it is important to identify the capacity of China's commercial roll-on, roll-off fleet, which can be requisitioned and pressed into military service should the Chinese government require the additional sealift capacity.
These commercial vessels would serve to provide a significant augmentation to China's military sealift capabilities, with the China Defense Blog estimating that the combined capabilities would enable China to deploy up to 150,000 troops and associated vehicles and materiel at once.
Despite commentary to the contrary, power projection, strategic and tactical presence and deterrence is at the core of China's regional ambitions, despite the advances in anti-ship ballistic and cruise missile systems, leaving important questions for Australian and allied strategic planners.
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea-lines-of-communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will yield unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.