As if to say “we don’t care if the world is watching”, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has officially welcomed its second, and first locally built, aircraft carrier, CV-17 Shandong, to the fleet as the Indo-Pacific balance of power continues to shift.
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, to declare the end of the major 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 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.
Exemplifying this, the Chinese Navy recently accepted the nation's second and first locally-built aircraft carrier, the Shandong, an evolved variant of the the Liaoning, a modernised former-Soviet aircraft carrier, acquired from Ukraine in the 2000s.
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.
Rather, China's strategic planners know their primary area of focus is Indo-Pacific Asia, which 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.
Heading towards true supercarriers
As the first locally-built aircraft carrier, Shandong faced a series of rigorous sea trials prior to entering service with the PLAN – this was particularly important as a result of extensive modifications, capability advancements and inclusions integrated into the vessel, building on lessons learned from its sister ship, Liaoning.
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, 61,000-tonne, 304.5-metre platform capable of supporting an airwing of 40 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft.
This airwing includes 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 63,500-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.
As a comparison, the Shandong carrier is a similar sized airwing to both the UK Royal Navy's new STOVL Queen Elizabeth Class carriers and the French Navy's conventionally powered catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) Charles deGaulle aircraft carrier, providing China with an important naval power projection and training capability for future developments.
Recognising the limitation of these platforms, China has plans to field an expanded carrier force incorporating a fleet of large, CATOBAR aircraft carriers – to be designated the Type 002.
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 Gerald R. Ford Class carriers.
Incorporating the next-generation launch system will enable the carriers to launch and recover a range of advanced aircraft as a result of an increased size and displacement, placing the Type 002 carriers in a similar weight class to the US Navy's retired, 83,000-tonne Kitty Hawk Class aircraft carriers.
This increased size is expected to see an increased airwing including fixed-wing airborne early warning and control aircraft, advanced fighter aircraft including the evolved variants of the J-15 and potentially, J-20 and FC-31 stealth fighters and an advanced ship-borne active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar system to integrate within the supporting carrier strike group.
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.
Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
Increasingly, multi-domain air power plays an important role in the efficacy of naval forces and serves as a key component in both the force structure and capability development plans for both South Korea and Australia.
These similarities support not only closer relationships between the two nations that share unique geo-political and strategic similarities, but also provide the opportunity to develop robust force structures to respond to the rapidly evolving regional strategic environment.
Recognising this changing regional environment – what carrier options are available to Australia should the nation's leaders elect to pursue a return to fixed-wing naval aviation for the Royal Australian Navy?
Traditionally, Australia has focused on a platform-for-platform acquisition program – focused on replacing, modernising or upgrading key capabilities on a like-for-like basis without a guiding policy, doctrine or strategy, limiting the overall effectiveness, survivability and capability of the RAN.