The Pentagon has determined China soon will commission its first aircraft carrier, placing it in an elite club of seafaring nations and raising concerns about Beijing's growing global ambitions.
In its annual congressionally-mandated report on China's military build-up, the Pentagon states the Peoples' Liberation Army Navy will this year place its Russian-built Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier into its fleet.
Initially, the carrier will be the home of PLA helicopters. But "in several years," when Chinese fighter aircraft are ready, the 67,500-ton ship will launch strike planes.
This year's report emphasizes Beijing's continued buildup for a showdown with democratic Taiwan, which Washington is treaty-bound to defend.
"Throughout this [decade-long] modernization drive, Taiwan contingency planning has dominated the agenda," states the report, which was released Friday. "Even though cross-Strait tensions have subsided since 2008, Taiwan remains a critical mission, and the PLA continues building capabilities aimed at Taiwan and at deterring, delaying, or denying possible third party intervention in a cross-Strait conflict."
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Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation says "even a limited operational capability makes China one of just a few countries that has a full-sized carrier." And that "says something politically and militarily," he says, "because inside their own backyard, they don't need this because they have plenty of air bases."
Fielding an aircraft carrier suggests China has ambitions far beyond the breakaway island republic, over which China still claims ownership. That's because an aircraft carrier is "a sophisticated piece of military hardware that can be used to project power far beyond a nation's shores," according to GlobalSecurity.org, an organization that tracks worldwide military trends and hardware.
But Gordon Adams, who oversaw defense budgeting for the Clinton administration, says the Chinese carrier is no threat to the U.S. "They have no capability to fly any jets off of it. They have no pilots trained to do so," Adams says. "The bottom line is: Technologically, we are ahead of the Chinese on every count. We are decades ahead of the Chinese militarily—as they admit—in every way you could think of."
The Kuznetsov-class ship, which is undergoing sea trials now and was purchased from Ukraine in 1998, is part of a broader Chinese effort to develop a navy "capable of supporting conventional military operations." That push also is intended to help China take on another nation's air force and war ships—and at distances further from its shores than before its decade-long military build-up began, the Pentagon says.
Deploying the carrier, and developing a list of other ships, is intended to give Beijing "sea superiority" inside the waters several hundred miles off its coast, as well as to "counter any potential third party intervention in a Taiwan conflict," according to the report.
The United States possesses by far the most, with its fleets of big-deck carriers and smaller-decked models used by the Marine Corps for its helicopters and jump jets. Also members of the so-called "carrier club" are the U.K., Span, Italy, Brazil, France, India, Russia and Thailand, according to GlobalSecurity.org.
The 2009 version of the Pentagon's Chinese power report concluded Beijing has no plans to stop with upgrading the former Ukrainian vessel, concluding China will have operational and domestically-made big-deck carriers shortly after 2015.
The carrier and naval projects are just pieces in a much larger Chinese military spending mosaic that totals, the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies estimate, "between $120 billion and $180 billion."
The Asian giant's offensive air and air defense forces for many years were "oriented solely on territorial defense," states the report, but that is changing. "The PLA air force is transforming into a force capable of off-shore offensive and defensive operations," including a stealth fighter, missile defense systems, early warning platforms, and transport planes capable of flying for greater distances than their predecessors, the Pentagon conclude
Some of these new platforms appear designed to assist Beijing with the kinds global humanitarian and development missions its military has been conducted in recent years.
As in previous years, the report lists a number of things the Chinese military is developing, including ballistic and surface-to-air missiles with greater payloads and ranges; multipurpose helicopters; and amphibious vehicles.
But, "this year's report is less a discussion about new weapon systems," Cheng says. "Instead, we have a list of what seem to be buying and that's the end of the story. It is interesting that [the Pentagon] seems to have chosen not to bring up some of the details."
Notably, the Pentagon report states "numerous indicators" of China expanding its special forces units. The report features no lengthy analysis about what the commandos might do, other than stating that "PLA special operations forces could infiltrate Taiwan and conduct attacks against infrastructure or leadership targets."
U.S. officials are increasingly concerned about cyber attacks that for years have appeared to originate inside China. Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia and Asia Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey says officials now have greater confidence that many cyber attacks emanate from Chinese soil.
At a Friday Pentagon press briefing, Helvey declined to comment on whether such attacks appear to be conducted by Chinese government entities or proxies.
Overall, the Pentagon's latest report paint a disturbing picture for Washington, Cheng says.
"What this shows is in the event of a conflict between the U.S. and China—and I think no one on either side of the Pacific wants that—the Chinese can make life very difficult for us," Cheng says.
"The Chinese are devoting resources—and have been for two decades with no end in sight—to modernizing its military," Cheng says. "In some areas, they are a lot better than they used to be. In others, like ballistic missiles, they are truly innovative. And in cyber, they are doing pretty well," Cheng says. "Also, they closely analyze our wars and how we fight. Many of their military weapon programs seem focused on trying to find key vulnerabilities in our capabilities."
Still, Cheng highlights a key difference between the American and Chinese militaries.
"The Chinese know, and so do we, that they haven't fought a war since 1979," says Cheng. "The one reality is the PLA does not have real combat experience. And people who have served will tell you there ain't nothing like real combat experience."