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The wide range of challenges inherent in developing a successful large-scale carrier and questions concerning its mission utility suggest that China may take a creative approach to carrier development, as it has done in other areas. Here it may be useful to examine other platform developments to seek patterns that would reveal PLA decision-making patterns and practices.

One notable trend in PLAN de- velopment has been the production of single, or short-series, platforms. Examples include emulation of So- viet efforts to build a dedicated minelaying vessel.82 China’s initial Xia SSBN is another potential exam- ple. Some Western analysts might as- cribe such activity to mere copying of Soviet failures or to a PLAN expe- riencing growing pains that reduced its ability to plan for and produce an effective fleet. But another interpre- tation, one that is supported by some Chinese sources, is that such small- scale experimentation deliberately facilitates learning independent of immedi- ate combat relevance. Viewed in this light, the Chinese navy might attempt to retrofit Varyag to begin experimentation with naval aviation—perhaps with lit- tle or no intention of ever using the resulting platform in battle.83 The Kiev museum at Tianjin contains photographs of other nations’ aircraft carriers, perhaps implying that aircraft carriers are a natural part of all great-power navies.

Such a vessel might also be used to practice operations against foreign carri- ers. Chinese specialists are acutely aware of aircraft carrier vulnerabilities, hav- ing conducted a wide variety of research apparently directed toward threatening aircraft carriers with ballistic and cruise missiles, submarine-launched torpe- does, and sea mines.84 One Chinese article emphasizes these “trump cards” as well as “neutron bombs [and] stealth missile ships.”85 China’s rapidly developing navy might view a carrier-based force posture as entirely premature yet also see the need to begin preparing for a future in which China’s maritime interests are more wide ranging and its capability to defend those interests greatly advanced. By that time, improvements in intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and pre- cision weaponry might conceivably have rendered aircraft carriers and other sur- face vessels ineffective for some missions—the “floating coffins” that Nikita Khrushchev foresaw.86 But by cultivating a nascent capability, however modest, the PLAN would have hedged its bets.

A second trend has been to improvise and compromise. A case can be made that the PLAN has long recognized its limitations in capability and lived within

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