ERICKSON & WILSON
apparent Chinese interest in Australian shipbuilding corporation INCAT’s “Evo- lution One12.” This wave-piercing catamaran is claimed to be “the world’s largest diesel powered fast craft,” a distinction corroborated by INCAT. INCAT has re- portedly proposed a “multifunction” VSTOL and helicopter ship for the Royal Australian Navy.39 Were it to pursue a parallel course of development, China could exploit its large and rapidly advancing shipbuilding sector, projected to become soon the world’s largest.40 China’s shipbuilding industry appears to combine eco- nomic dynamism and broad-based Western technology assimilation with close military coordination.41 Indeed, Shanghai’s Jiangnan shipyard—China’s largest and perhaps soon the world’s largest—already contains both commercial facilities and others for advanced submarines and surface warships.
Indeed, while commercial technology is not directly applicable to military vessels—substantial modifications are necessary—China might prove more adept at this process than many other nations. It is conceivable that carrier-relevant research, development, and even production could proceed at one or more of China’s major shipyards on a scale and with a rapidity that might surprise West- ern analysts. Certainly, however, there would be extraordinary challenges in converting a merchant ship into a combat-ready carrier. Producing a ship capa- ble of ferrying helicopters would be comparatively straightforward, but even then the final result would likely be of minimal tactical utility and a tempting target for an adversary. Ultimately the aircraft carrier itself is simply a platform for air operations—the system of systems that allows for the projection of air power from the sea. The acquisition of a Chinese carrier vessel is simply one step, and a relatively simple one at that, along a complex continuum that may some- day lead to a truly operational Chinese aircraft carrier. The subsequent steps in- volve hardware, software, and training.
The Carrier Hardware Package All of these options would rely on conventional propulsion. While a theoretical possibility, nuclear propulsion makes little sense for the Chinese, who do not currently need surface combatants with the range of U.S. nuclear-powered car- riers. Conventional propulsion is technologically much simpler and signifi- cantly more economical. Still, a carrier that can go to sea under its own power is one thing; a fully operational carrier is another matter entirely. As we have seen, there are many other technological and doctrinal questions to be answered.
Carrier operation demands a full complement of such elements as aircraft, deck elevators, radars, and defenses. Already, Chinese specialists have conducted extensive research in many major relevant areas. Experts at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics have studied carrier-aircraft landing gear.42 Harbin Engineering University’s Naval Architecture Department has examined the