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Obtaining aircraft would not in itself, however, mitigate the lack of practical experience with them in a carrier environment. Great leaps forward in opera- tional capabilities solely through acquisition are unlikely. More incremental im- provements—akin to Japan’s gradual approach to its helicopter-carrying Osumi-class, and next-generation, LSTs (which some speculate may deploy fixed-wing aircraft, possibly the Joint Strike Fighter)—are more realistic. In this regard, Thailand’s acquisition of the Spanish-built Chakri Naruebet may serve as a tangible lesson. Bangkok acquired this fully outfitted, very expensive ship in 1997 but due to financial constraints and lack of experience has rarely deployed it.

Therefore, there are many reasons for the Chinese to pace themselves rather than rush to deploy an operational carrier. The most that a major purchase of new aircraft, such as the Russian two-seat Su-30MKK, or the Chinese version, the MK2, can offer the PLANAF is greater ability to perform its basic missions. Better weapons and more experience with air-to-surface attack can extend area-denial and interdiction incrementally, but significant growth of that enve- lope is unlikely without sea-based aviation and land-based, over-water, midair refueling capability, in addition to some means of coordination and defense (e.g., an AWACS* equivalent). Both of these capabilities appear to be high prior- ities for the PLAN. China purchased Russian A-50 AWACS-type aircraft in 2000, following cancellation of Israel’s Phalcon sale amid mounting American pres- sure. China is also reportedly developing the KJ-2000, and indigenous AWACS-type aircraft.50 “While the larger, more advanced” KJ-2000 is envi- sioned to conduct “long-range, comprehensive aerial patrolling and control roles,” the smaller KJ-200/Y-8 airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft (nick- named “Balance Beam” in the West), with an electronically steered phased array, offers “a less expensive platform for tactical airborne early warning and elec- tronic intelligence missions.”51 Various sources report that a KJ-200 aircraft crashed on 4 June 2006, killing forty people and possibly setting back the pro- gram.52 China is also reportedly considering Russia’s Kamov Ka-31 helicopter for carrier-based AEW.53 China still relies on Russian aerial refueling tankers (for instance, the Il-78) but is struggling to achieve domestic production capa- bilities even there.

If the experience of other navies is any measure, the Chinese also need to real- ize that getting carrier operations right will involve the loss of expensive aircraft and hard-to-replace pilots. In 1954 alone, in working to master jet aviation off carriers, the U.S. Navy lost nearly eight hundred aircraft. In 1999 the Navy lost only twenty-two, but these were the most advanced aircraft flown by the world’s

  • *

    The U.S. Airborne Warning and Control System, carried by the E-3A aircraft.


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