China's as yet unnamed aircraft carrier will soon begin another round of sea trials before its planned commissioning in August.
t will be several months, if not years, before it can fulfill many of the key roles attributed to a modern aircraft carrier and will not achieve full operational capability, including a complete fixed-wing and helicopter equipped air wing, nor full integration into fleet operations before 2016-2017.
Beijing's fleet modernization program has involved the patient acquisition and development of the surveillance, sensor, command and control, and weapons systems integral to a balanced, modern ocean-going fleet. The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has introduced these new systems incrementally, building primarily upon technology acquired openly from Europe, Israel and Russia as well as incorporating American systems obtained from a variety of sources.
As a result, the latest Chinese surface ships and submarines are equipped with an array of first-rate sensor and weapons systems. The former have area air-defense systems not unlike America's Aegis-system, albeit with capabilities more akin to earlier rather than the latest models. The Luyang-II class guided missile destroyers are a formidable platform equipped with the HHQ-9 area air defense surface-to-air missile (SAM) system and both YJ-82 anti-ship (ASCM), and more ominously for neighboring Southeast Asian nations, HN-2 land attack cruise missiles (LACMs).
For that strategic concern, the carrier can play a forward command role, extend the fleet's and nation's air defense umbrella by an additional 200 nautical miles, and protect reconnaissance platforms flying out from shore bases. The embarked admiral can command all the naval and forward air forces involved, including coordinating with the 2nd Artillery Corps in its employment of China's DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs). With ASBMs targeting enemy carriers, China's aircraft carrier could be used as a quick reaction strike platform against the enemy's other surface combatants.
Carriers are the world's most complex warships, involving the simultaneous operation of dozens of systems and hundreds of personnel at very close quarters.
China's carrier will enter service without a fully composed air wing. Its primary fixed-wing aircraft, the Shenyang J-15, has not entered production and is not expected to before 2014.
There has been speculation that China is developing an airborne early warning (AEW) version of the Z-8, China's license-built model of the French SA-320 Super Frelon. While that helicopter has the lift and endurance to carry a long-range surveillance radar, it cannot service the command and control systems required to conduct AWACS missions.
At the same time, aircraft carriers have significant uses beyond their war potential. With a likely eventual air wing of 20-30 fixed wing fighters and 12-18 helicopters, once fully operational, China's carrier will offer a full range of surveillance, helo-borne transport and fighter capabilities to support various combatant and non-combatant contingencies.
Coordinating surface fleet and air operations with submarines adds yet another level of complexity to an already complicated military operation. By building and commissioning a carrier, China has signaled it aims to become a great naval power. How the PLAN employs its carrier-bolstered fleet over the next two to five years will largely shape regional and global perceptions of China and its intentions. Even the carrier's name, once christened, will carry political significance outside China's shores. With growing power comes growing responsibility - the world will be watching how Beijing responds to both challenges.
Much more> Asia Times Online :: New carrier, new war scenarios