China launched its first aircraft carrier, an antique bought from Ukraine, about a year ago to much fanfare in China and hand wringing abroad. The international media saw this as a “potent” sign of China’s growing naval prowess.But the carrier is still a long way from being a battle-ready warship. Reuters reports:
Despite public anticipation in China that the carrier — a refitted, Soviet-era vessel bought from Ukraine — will soon become the flagship of a powerful navy, defense experts say it lacks the strike aircraft, weapons, electronics, training and logistical support it needs to become a fighting warship. . . .. . . [S]enior People’s Liberation Army officers have played down expectations [that the carrier was almost ready], making it clear the 60,000-tonne carrier was far from operational readiness and would undergo an extensive schedule of trials and exercises.“The Great Wall wasn’t built in a day,” Colonel Lin Bai from the General Armaments Department was quoted as saying on official government news websites after the Varyag returned to port.Even when the Varyag is operational, it will only have a limited operational role, mostly for training and evaluation ahead of the anticipated launch of China’s first domestically built carriers after 2015, military analysts say.
This is a reminder for many Weibo nationalists and others in China who don’t understand how far China really is from becoming a strong and effective naval force in even coastal waters. They probably also don’t understand that China’s most serious naval challenge isn’t the South China Sea but control of the sea lanes from the Middle East and elsewhere, over which its oil and trade move.Given the rate of technological change and the progress in information and other innovative warfare strategies, aircraft carriers may well be obsolete by the time China has built a significant capacity. Moreover, any major sign of a Chinese naval buildup will prompt a response from its neighbors, as well as from the U.S. China can spend a lot of extra money on defense without actually changing the balance of forces.We Americans are sometimes so worried by our own problems that we forget that other people also have issues trying to catch up with us.