As China plans to add more mini-aircraft carriers and assemble at least six carrier strike groups by 2035, it faces the vital task of maintaining the right number of each type of ship.
The Chinese navy has undergone considerable expansion, with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) estimating that it will receive nearly 100 new ships by 2030 to give it a total of about 425 battle-force ships.
Part of the motivation is to catch up with the United States, which has 11 aircraft carriers, outnumbering China by nine, and more than a dozen amphibious assault ships to support its global strategy.
But a military source and observers said Beijing’s strategy would be not just a matter of the number of ships, but ensuring the fleet combinations were well balanced, to avoid bearing a hugely costly fleet.
Previous reports said new naval vessels would include four next-generation aircraft carriers, an unspecified number of next-generation nuclear-powered attack and strategic submarines, as well as the amphibious assault ships and upgraded Type 076 platforms with electromagnetic catapults for fixed-wing aircraft operations – making them more like aircraft carriers.
That is in addition to the six aircraft carrier strike groups by 2035, raising concerns over whether China will adopt a global strategy like that of the US and even the former Soviet Union, which during the Cold War planned to build more than 200 nuclear submarines to counter the US’ aircraft carriers.
But a military source told the South China Morning Post that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would not follow those templates, and was simply assessing which numbers of surface ships and nuclear submarines would suffice to defend national interests at home and overseas.
“China now has enough conventional surface warships, like the cruisers, destroyers, frigates and corvettes, but the numbers of [nuclear-powered] aircraft carriers and submarines need to be increased,” the source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said.
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said the task of building a well-balanced fleet was the toughest for all the big powers.
He said one of the reasons for the collapse of the former Soviet Union was its costly nuclear submarine strategy.
“It’s impossible for the PLAN to copy the US navy’s aircraft carrier strategy, too. The US has several huge naval bases in the Indo-Pacific region, including the Guam base, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and the 7th fleet’s headquarters in Japan’s Yokosuka, enabling it to form several containment arcs to contain a rising China,” Wong said, referring to the so-called island chain strategies that targeted the communist alliance led by the former Soviet Union in Asia during the Cold War.
“Unlike other surface warships, both aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines need specific and dedicated ports for logistic support and maintenance when sailing farther from home waters, but so far China just built its first and only military outpost, in Djibouti [on the Horn of Africa].”
Wong said Beijing had been planning to set up overseas military outposts in Myanmar, Pakistan and other Beijing-friendly African countries since the mid-1990s when China became a net oil importer, but progress was limited almost two decades later.
“Besides ‘China threat’ theory, the Chinese foreign ministry’s Wolf Warrior diplomatic policy should also be blamed, causing many countries to remain suspicious about the ambitions behind Beijing’s naval expansion,” he said.
In an effort to become a real blue-water navy, Beijing adjusted its military policy in 2015, placing more stress on active offshore water defence and open-seas protection.
“In the foreseeable future, both active offshore defence and far-seas protection would carry similar strategic weight in importance, ” Collin Koh, a maritime security analyst with Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said. “This is surely enabled by growing the PLAN’s blue-water capabilities, not least a more robust aircraft carrier capacity.”
In current peacetime, Koh said, the PLAN might be able to secure continued access to facilities in Beijing-friendly Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, or even Iran, as well as some other Middle East and East African countries via economic investments, but that would be unsustainable in wartime.
The PLAN has two active conventional aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong. A third, with electromagnetic catapults, is expected to be launched this year.
The most likely contingency for the PLA would be a war over Taiwan, given that Beijing sees the self-ruled island as a breakaway province to be returned by force if necessary. All the giant platforms and the expected near-dozen amphibious assault ships would be expected to take part in any potential conflict over Taiwan.
“We can see both Liaoning and Shandong ships are used as training and ship-borne weapon systems testing platforms, indicating they are still operating like the Soviet aircraft cruisers during World War II,” said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at the Taiwanese Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.
“The PLAN’s aircraft carriers can’t compete with the offensive USS Nimitz-class aircraft platforms … of course, Beijing’s future defence policy will be clear when the mainland discloses details of the third next-generation carrier.”
As the world’s two biggest naval fleets engage in the Indo-Pacific region, China’s People’s Liberation Army can observe and learn from the United States Navy in adapting future tactical combined operations, according to defence analysts.
The USS Makin Island is a 40,000-tonne Wasp-class amphibious assault ship able to carry a detachment of Marine F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters. The LHD and two San Antonio-class landing platform dock (LPD) amphibious transport ships – the USS Somerset and USS San Diego – as well as several helicopter and assault craft units form the Makin Island ARG.
“The displacement size and functions of the Wasp-class LHD are similar to the PLA’s Type 075 LHD, while the San Antonio-class transport docks are similar to China’s Type 071 landing platform docks (LPD),” Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said.
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the PLA would learn from the experiences of its American counterpart in turning its LHD and LPD into mini-aircraft carrier strike groups, an effective cost-saving measure.
“The US has studied how to operate their ARG in a more feasible and efficient way,” Li said.
“For China, the key mission of their Type 075 and Type 071 will be defending the country’s territorial sovereignty in the East and South China seas, as well as overseas interests, meaning the ARG combination is a better option than aircraft carrier strike groups.”
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said deploying both LHDs and LPDs indicated the US Navy’s capacity for tactical manoeuvres and joint cooperation on the high seas.
“The combination of LHD and LPD is an integrated expeditionary strike group, which is worth the PLA learning from if they are going to better deploy their Type 075 and Type 071 amphibious warships,” Wong said.
China has launched three Type 075 LHDs, which were designed to each carry up to 30 attack helicopters and armoured vehicles, and eight smaller Type 071 LPDs with the displacement of 25,000 tonnes.
The Type 075 is the world’s third largest amphibious assault vessel behind the USS Wasp and America classes. It is bigger than Japan’s Izumo class and France’s Mistral class.
However, Song said that in addition to the amphibious ships, the most powerful weapon of the Makin Island ARG were the F-35B squadrons and detachments of multi-role helicopters suited to different types of sea warfare missions.
“The most challenging problem of the PLA is a lack of new-generation fixed-wing carrier-based aircraft like the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter jets,” Song said.
“The F-35B helps the USS Marines grab air supremacy in both ARG operations, making its function like that of the mini-carrier strike groups … that means the US Navy owns nearly 20 carrier strike groups around the world.”
To solve the current shortcomings, Song suggested the PLA install a catapult on the deck of the Type 075 LHD to upgrade the platform and allow it to operate the country’s carrier-based J-15 fighter jet.
The US Navy was reported to have tested the idea of smaller carriers, which would reduce the range, speed and capacity of its US$13 billion nuclear-powered supercarriers known as CVNs, but cost half as much or even less, Forbes reported in December.
The ARG operation could be seen as testing a mini-carrier option, an exercise China could learn from, Song and Li said.
The United States military has engaged in a form of “cognitive warfare” following the latest encounter between its warships and the Chinese navy.
Both countries have deployed aircraft carrier strike groups to the East and South China seas, led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the Liaoning, respectively.
On Sunday, the US released a photo that showed one of its guided-missile destroyers, the USS Mustin, shadowing the Liaoning group – a move that analysts said was designed to send a clear message to the Chinese.
The photo taken on Monday somewhere in the East China Sea showed the ship’s captain, Cmdr. Robert J Briggs, and his deputy, Cmdr. Richard D Slye, watching the Liaoning, which was just a few thousand metres away.
“In the photo, Cmdr. Briggs looks very relaxed with his feet up watching the Liaoning ship just a few thousand yards away, while his deputy is also sitting beside him, showing they take their PLA counterparts lightly,” said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.
“This staged photograph is definitely ‘cognitive warfare’ to show the US doesn’t regard the PLA as an immediate threat.”
Zhou Chenming, a researcher with the Yuan Wang think tank, a Beijing-based military science and technology institute, said the photo indicated that the US warship kept a “very safe distance” while shadowing the Liaoning.
“Both sides understand that there is a big gap between the US and Chinese aircraft carrier strike groups,” Zhou said.
Andrei Chang, the editor-in-chief of the Canada-based Kanwa Defence Review, said the photo was a “warning to the PLA” that the US was thoroughly informed about the Liaoning strike group.
The Beijing-based South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative said the US military had increased the deployment of aircraft and warships to the East and South China seas.
It also said the USS Mustin had been sent to waters near the mouth of the Yangtze River on April 3, and since last Sunday has been following the Liaoning group through the East and South China Seas.
The Liaoning aircraft carrier group also includes the Nanchang, one of China’s most advanced Type 055 destroyers, two other destroyers, a frigate and a support ship.
The Japanese defence ministry is also reported to have sent the destroyer JS Suzutsuki and two patrol aircraft to monitor the strike group as it passed between Okinawa and Miyako Island on Sunday.
Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary Austin Lloyd had a phone conversation with his Philippine counterpart Delfin Lorenzana to reaffirm their shared commitment to their alliance after Chinese vessels massed at a disputed reef, according to the Pentagon.
China has described the presence of the 200 vessels near Whitsun Reef as “normal and legitimate” and said officials are maintaining close communications with the Philippines.
But the Philippines has described the vessels as a maritime militia and last week the broadcaster ABS-CBN claimed two Chinese vessels armed with missiles drove away the ship carrying its news crew near the island province of Palawan. The broadcaster said it was the first recorded instance of a military manoeuvre against a civilian boat.
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said the report indicated that the PLA had deployed Type 022 missile boats to Mischief Reef, one of the seven artificial islands Beijing has reclaimed in the disputed Spratly Islands, which are just 250km (155 miles) from Palawan.
“The massing of China’s maritime militia vessels at Whitsun Reef implies that Beijing may attempt to resume its land reclamation project in the Spratly Islands because of the geostrategic location of Whitsun Reef, which is located between Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef,” Wong said.
“China realised Mischief is too far away from the mainland and too isolated in the Spratlys, but land expansion based around Whitsun Reef will solve the problem.”
The release of a new state media video of China’s Shandong aircraft carrier suggests the giant vessel might soon be heading out on the high seas as it continues its preparations to become combat-ready, according to a military insider.
“The Shandong will probably start its drills and training on the high seas later this year, which is a necessary step for it to achieve initial operational capability [IOC],” a source close to the navy said.
State broadcaster China Central Television released the footage on Tuesday, showing how the carrier had been continuing with its preparations despite the world being gripped by the coronavirus pandemic.
“After being handed over to the navy [from the shipbuilder], it takes at least 18 months for an aircraft carrier to achieve IOC as there are thousands of items to test and approve,” said Zhou Chenming, a researcher at the Yuan Wang military think tank in Beijing.
According to the CCTV video, the Shandong, which is China’s first domestically developed aircraft carrier, features 12,000 different equipment systems.
While the Shandong has already conducted nine sea trails, they were all in Bohai Bay or the South China Sea, which was relatively close to its home base in Sanya, Hainan province, according to Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.
He agreed that the CCTV video suggested the vessel was now ready to take to the high seas.
“The Shandong will sail through the first island chain – as its sister ship the Liaoning did before it – to the western Pacific, for its first high-sea exercises,” he said.
Because of Covid-19 restrictions, much of the CCTV footage was shot by members of the Shandong’s crew. It took television viewers inside the 20-storey accommodation and operations block that towers above the deck of the ship and gave them a brief insight into the day-to-day lives of the 5,000 sailors who call the vessel home.
The video also provided information about the Shandong’s ski-jump for launching jets and its powerful cannons capable of firing 10,000 rounds a minute. A CCTV reporter said the angle of the ski-jump was 14 degrees, and not 12 degrees as many experts had guessed.
“China Shipbuilding Industry Corp [which built the Shandong] has never announced the angle, but the blueprint for the Liaoning shows that the angle on its ramp is [also] 14 degrees,” Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said.
“But based on the thrust of the J-15 fighter jet, many experts believed the ramp angle on the Shandong would have to be reduced a little,” he said.
Hong Kong-based military commentator Liang Guoliang said the ski-jump angle on the Liaoning – a Soviet-designed Kuznetsov-class carrier China bought from Ukraine in 1998 – was designed to accommodate Russian Su-33 Flanker fighters.
“Four options for the ski-jump ramp angle – eight, 12, 14 and 16 degrees – were tested,” Liang said. “More powerful aircraft need a lower angle, and it’s a fact that China’s J-15 is more powerful than the Su-33.”
In November, PLA pilot Peng Gaofei was killed in a crash during a flight exercise from the Shandong. He was the second J-15 fighter jet pilot to die since 2016, when Zhang Chao was killed due to a problem with the flight control system in his aircraft.
The US has the number of aircraft carriers it needs to meet requirements across the globe – unless “additional challenges show themselves,” the four-star admiral nominated to oversee military operations in the Asia-Pacific region said.
The 11 aircraft carriers in the military’s arsenal – as currently required by law – are what the force needs, Adm. John Aquilino said during a Tuesday Senate confirmation hearing. Aquilino has been nominated to lead U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
Aquilino was asked by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., whether the Navy has enough carriers to deter China in the Pacific while still operating in the Middle East and elsewhere.
“We’ve complied to the law [with] 11, but is that enough though?” Wicker asked Aquilino. “Just tell us – we need to know. We can change the law of the land if we get enough votes.”
Aquilino said carrier strike groups are a tremendous form of deterrence, but demurred on saying the Navy needed more.
“I think currently that the size of that force is correct unless additional challenges show themselves,” he said.
Navy aircraft carriers are in high demand across the globe, but the service faced criticism from Congress when leaders in 2019 proposed retiring one early to invest in new technologies. USNI News reported this month that Pentagon leaders are again considering a reduced carrier force structure as part of its upcoming 2022 budget submission to Congress.
Resistance from lawmakers is likely. Wicker released a statement Monday calling for a bigger Navy in response to growing presence at sea from Russia and China. He urged the Biden administration to embrace a military plan released under President Donald Trump to increase the fleet to 405 manned Navy ships by 2051.
“If we do not ramp up shipbuilding dramatically, it will be more and more difficult to prevent a future conflict with our adversaries,” Wicker wrote.
Bryan McGrath, a retired surface officer and naval consultant, said while he has great respect for Aquilino, he believes the admiral is wrong to think 11 carriers are enough for the Navy to carry out its global requirements. McGrath cited ongoing trouble with carrier maintenance, readiness woes, and the need for extended or double-pump deployments that have weighed on the force.
The 11-carrier requirement was made law at about the same time as the Navy’s 2007 maritime strategy, which enshrined a “two-hub” presence in the Western Pacific and Persian Gulf or Indian Ocean.
Eleven is the minimum necessary carrier count to support the two hubs with continuous coverage, McGrath added, given maintenance and transit-time requirements.
Whenever two carriers are needed in one of those hubs though – which happened last year in response to Iranian threats and again just last month in the South China Sea – “the brittle relationship between that number of carriers and that number of hubs comes into stark relief,” he added.
And today, the US is also now dealing with a resurgence from Russia in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic, McGrath said.
“The nation cannot ignore Europe as a theater for carrier operations, and in fact, it hasn’t,” he said. “And so for several years, we’ve taken the minimum number of carriers necessary to fill two hubs continuously and attempted to time share in a third, even as we desired multiple carriers in one or more of those hubs in this period.”
McGrath made the case in 2015 for a 16-carrier Navy. That many carriers could support continuous coverage of “three hubs indefinitely,” he wrote, “with little or no risk of gap.” He said he stands by that argument, adding, “if anything, today’s security environment is more pressing than when I wrote these words in 2015.”
Last week, Adm. Phil Davidson, who currently leads Indo-Pacific Command, told lawmakers there’s no substitute for having an aircraft carrier in the Pacific to counter China’s growing presence in the region.
The Navy is also still considering reactivating another numbered fleet in the Western Pacific, Davidson said. The Japan-based US Seventh Fleet currently oversees Navy operations all the way from India down to Antarctica and up past Japan to the Kuril Islands.
After nearly two decades of counter-terror operations around the world, the United States military has recently begun shifting its focus away from this form of asymmetric warfare and back toward the potential for near-peer conflicts with nations like China or Russia.
Despite maintaining the most powerful military apparatus on the globe, this pivot won’t be without its challenges. Over the past 19 years, the United States military has funneled the majority of its funding into combat operations and new technologies that support the counter-terrorism endeavor.
During this time, national opponents like China have had ample opportunity to observe the way America’s military operates, and find cost-effective methods of countering the US’s most significant strengths.
In 2015, for instance, both China and Russia established space-specific branches of their armed forces tasked with replicating some of America’s orbital strengths (like a GPS satellite constellation), but also with finding ways to mitigate America’s established orbital dominance.
Put simply, it’s cheaper and easier to interfere with or destroy technology than it is to replicate it, and America’s enemies have leveraged that simple logic to great effect in recent years. Today, it’s believed that both Russia and China operate semi-autonomous orbital assets that can already spy on or potentially even destroy satellites that are currently in orbit.
But while America has maintained the lead in orbital technology, it has apparently fallen behind in some weapons technologies that saw reduced focus throughout these many years of fighting terror organizations – namely, weapons technologies intended for use against technologically capable opponents.
Hypersonics, as one pressing example, are a rapidly developing field of extremely fast (higher than Mach 5) weapons that, to date, no air defense system can counter.
While both China and Russia claim to have operational hypersonic weapons in their arsenals, there’s one weapon that has wreaked more havoc in American military strategy than any other: China’s hypersonic DF-21D anti-ship missile.
Why is the DF-21D such a threat?
The DF-21D is a hypersonic anti-ship missile employed by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The platform itself is a medium-range, road-mobile ballistic missile. Once launched, the DF-21D follows a similar arc to that of an intercontinental ballistic missile, flying high into low earth orbit before deploying a hypersonic glide vehicle that can reach speeds as high as Mach 10 during its guided descent phase.
Existing missile defense systems simply can’t intercept a target moving that fast, making it all but impossible to stop one of these missiles once it’s been fired.
While the DF-21D’s speed makes it a clear threat to US Navy ships, it’s the missile’s range that poses the biggest problem. The DF-21D has an operational range of about 2,000 kilometers, or a bit more than 1,200 miles.
By placing these platforms along the Chinese coastline, the PLA has been able to establish an area-denial strategy, sometimes referred to as an area-denial “bubble,” or a 1,200-mile circle around each missile that enemy ships can’t enter without being within range of the weapon system.
It’s important to note that while these missiles can carry both conventional and nuclear payloads, the sheer kinetic force of a Mach 10 impact would be enough on its own to sink many ships, and when coupled with an explosive warhead, could conceivably take even a massive Nimitz-class supercarrier out of the fight with a single shot.
The strategic implications of China’s ‘area-denial bubble’
China’s area-denial bubble that extends some 1,200 miles from their shoreline poses a significant challenge for America’s conventional wartime strategy of using aircraft carriers as a means of force projection.
The US Navy maintains a fleet of 11 supercarriers, each capable of delivering more firepower than many entire nations could manage. One Nimitz-class carrier is capable of accommodating as many as 130 F/A-18 Super Hornets, or as many as 90 aircraft of varying types, along with a massive 6,000 service personnel.
The US uses these carriers to deliver huge amounts of firepower to any region of the globe, using carrier-based aircraft to deliver ordnance to targets extending out hundreds of miles.
It’s that “hundreds of miles” part that is the real issue here. The US Navy’s workhorse fighters are F/A-18 Super Hornets, which are currently undergoing a massive overhaul that will offer a similar increase in capabilities to the previous shift from Block I Hornets to Block II Super Hornets in 2001.
However, even with these Block III Super (Duper) Hornets, the ranges these jets are capable of engaging targets at are still far too short to compensate for China’s area denial bubble.
Block III Super Hornets and F-35Cs come up short
The Navy’s current Block II Super Hornets have a combat radius of approximately 500 miles while carrying a full weapons payload. That means these jets can take off from a carrier, fly 500 miles to engage a target, turn tail, and fly 500 miles back to their ship.
The forthcoming Block III variant of these fighters will add conformal fuel tanks (additional fuel tanks that hug the fuselage of the aircraft) which will allow them to carry 3,500 pounds of additional fuel, which will increase their fuel range by approximately 300 miles, or combat radius by 150. That means the top-end fourth-generation fighters employed by the US Navy in the near future will need to be launched within 650 miles of a target to be able to engage it.
The Lockheed Martin F-35C (carrier variant) offers about 10% more fuel range than the Block II Super Hornet, making its combat radius approximately 660 miles. Again, that mark falls far short of China’s DF-21D anti-ship missile’s range, at better than 1,200 miles.
This means that, in a best-case scenario, the U.S. Navy would have to park its carriers about 650 miles off of Chinese shores to be able to target shoreline assets, which places it well within China’s area-denial bubble. The minute an American carrier comes closer than 1,200 miles from Chinese shores, we run the risk of losing it to a DF-21D strike.
Put succinctly, this single missile platform has effectively neutered America’s most potent form of force projection: its fleet of supercarriers.
Increasing the fuel range of carrier-based aircraft
The US Navy is currently developing a carrier-based drone refueler called the MQ-25 Stingray. Originally developed to serve as a low-observable Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (or armed drone), Boeing was able to convert their platform into a carrier-based refueler when the Navy began to recognize the importance of pulling more mileage out of existing fighters.
On August 30, 2018, the US Navy awarded Boeing an $805 million contract to continue development on the platform, and the drone took its first test flight just over a year later in September of 2019. The Navy intends to purchase a total of 76 Stingrays from Boeing, and according to the Pentagon, they may be able to extend the range of carrier-based aircraft by as much as 400 miles.
This increase in range is substantial – but isn’t substantial enough to allow carriers to launch sorties from outside China’s area-denial bubble. It’s important to note that the Navy’s fighters can’t refuel over the target, so each jet needs enough range to make it back to where the MQ-25 can reach them after delivering ordnance.
While there are current concerns about the MQ-25 program being delayed by external issues within the Navy, a spokesperson from Naval Air Systems Command recently confirmed that they expect to reach initial operating capability for the MQ-25 sometime in 2024.
Finding alternatives to carriers
There are a number of initiatives in development aimed at offsetting the strategic advantage China maintains in the region through their area-denial strategy, but thus far, no single effort that has been discussed publicly will do it on its own.
The US Marine Corps has had a great deal of success launching F-35Bs (short take-off, vertical landing variant) off the deck of smaller “flat-top carriers” the US refers to (for legal reasons) as amphibious assault ships. These vessels would likely be called aircraft carriers by other nations, but are significantly smaller than the Navy’s Nimitz or Ford-class supercarriers – making them a more difficult target to locate and engage.
It’s important to recognize the significant challenge accurate targeting will be for China’s DF-21D. Aircraft carriers may be massive, but against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean, they’re practically tiny and can move at around 35 knots (40 miles per hour) with the throttle open.
In order to hit one on the move, China intends to employ supersonic drones to locate and transmit targeting data back to the missile. A smaller target (in the form of an amphibious assault ship) does make effective targeting even more difficult.
Other efforts include creating austere airstrips for F-35Bs on land masses inside China’s area denial bubble. These hastily cleared airports would allow heavy lift helicopters to deliver fuel and ordnance for F-35Bs to land, resupply, and take off once again.
However, these hasty airstrips, like a stationary aircraft carrier, would have a short shelf-life inside the range of China’s ballistic missile arsenal.
Support from the Air Force and the Army
While the US Navy and Marine Corps have both been working tirelessly to find ways to extend the reach of America’s carrier strike groups, it may be the Air Force that would need to lead the way in a conflict with China.
Northrop Grumman’s forthcoming B-21 Raider is expected to be the stealthiest bomber ever to take to the skies and will offer global strike capabilities similar to that of its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit.
The B-21, then, may come to the Navy’s rescue by flying long-distance bombing missions over Chinese shorelines, engaging DF-21D and other hypersonic anti-ship platforms to clear the way for America’s carriers to sail close enough to begin launching sorties of their own. However, because the DF-21D is road mobile, it’s likely that it will be difficult to be sure where these platforms are. That’s where the Army may be able to help.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy recently let the cat out of the bag about a new program under his purview called “Vintage Racer,” which is a previously undisclosed hypersonic weapon that, unlike the hypersonic missiles employed by China and Russia, aims to solve problems through data collection and lots of brainpower, rather than brute force alone.
Vintage Racer closes with targets at hypersonic speeds, making it just as difficult to defend against as China’s own hypersonic missiles, but once it reaches a target area, the platform deploys a loitering system that uses its own sensors to find hidden or moving targets in the area. Once that system spots a mobile missile platform, it can then engage and destroy it.
Could a new fighter solve this problem?
With the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. recently claiming that the US Air Force needs to develop a “clean-sheet” stealth fighter that combines some F-35 capabilities with the cost effectiveness of a 4th-generation fighter, it’s clear that the United States no longer sees the F-35 as a solution for every problem.
The Air Force also claimed to have designed, built, and flight tested a “6th-generation fighter” platform that will likely mature into a replacement for the stealth F-22 Raptor via the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance program.
So if the Air Force is looking to bolster its own F-35s with a handful of more specialized fighters, what’s to stop the Navy from following suit? Namely, the money.
America’s Defense Department has to compete within itself for portions of the budget, and while the Air Force considers new fighter acquisitions, the Navy is stuck trying to expand the size of its surface fleet to compete with China. America’s Navy has something in the neighborhood of 293 vessels, with many slated for retirement in the coming decades. In order to keep pace with China’s 700+ size fleet, the US Navy needs more ships, and ships are expensive.
But what if the Navy were to find a way to hop into bed with the Air Force’s multiple fighter programs? While trying to cram the word “joint” into a fighter program may give us all a bit of pause (for good reason, after the acquisition nightmare the F-35 has become), if a new jet could solve this problem for the Navy, what would it have to look like?
To be clear – it would be asking a lot. In order to offset the area-denial bubble created by China’s anti-ship weapons, this new jet would need to have a massive amount of range and a tiny radar profile. If we assume the area-denial bubble extends 1,200 miles from China’s shores and the existence of operational MQ-25s for refueling, we can do some back-of-the-envelope math to determine range requirements.
This new aircraft would need to fly 1,200 miles out from the deck of a carrier, and then a minimum of 800 miles back, where it could be refueled for an additional 400 miles. That means the Navy needs an aircraft with a whopping 2,000-mile range … at a minimum. It would also need to be stealthy – in order to survive in the highly contested airspace it would operate in.
While such an aircraft may not be impossible … it is a pretty big ask.
Does this even matter if we don’t go to war with China?
While the capabilities the US is developing with an eye toward China will certainly benefit combat operations in any theater, there’s another important aspect of defense technology development that warrants consideration: diplomatic leverage in the pursuit of deterrence.
Like Theodore Roosevelt’s “talk softly and carry a big stick” approach to diplomacy, military capability is often as much about the threat of use as it is about actual use. When engaged in diplomatic talks, the understanding that warfare is foreign policy by other means is ever-present.
When it comes to aggressive states like China, who are moving to enforce illegal claims over the hotly contested South China Sea, knowing we can’t stop them plays an important role in how they approach the subject in international dialogue.
Likewise, if China is aware that the US possesses the capability to do away with their anti-ship arsenal and begin launching combat sorties in their airspace, it forces them to engage with the dialogue directly. A great deal of foreign policy really comes down to posturing and veiled threats, but threats are only effective when they’re backed by real capability.
From a strategic military standpoint, the most effective way to deter a 21st-century war with China is to ensure America would win such a conflict. In order to get to that point, the capability gap created by China’s area-denial bubble needs to be closed, and right now – that all boils down to fuel range.
After a two-year delay because of technical problems, construction work on the vessel resumed earlier this year, the South China Morning Post reported in January, citing a military source.
“Shipbuilders and ship propulsion engineers are keen on making a significant breakthrough with the construction of the fourth carrier,” a source close to the Chinese navy said on condition of anonymity.
“It will be a technological leap for the shipbuilding industry … but construction may take longer than for its sister ship due to the different propulsion systems.”
China already has two operational aircraft carriers and a third – to which the source was referring – is expected to be launched this year. None are nuclear powered.
A second source, who also asked not to be identified, said the Central Military Commission was studying a proposal by China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) to use nuclear power for the fourth carrier.
He declined to say whether a decision had been made, but said it would be a “very bold decision that is full of challenges.”
The CSSC said in February 2018 it had started developing a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which would help the PLA Navy to “realise its strategic transformation and combat-readiness capability in deep waters and open oceans by 2025.”
In 2019, China General Nuclear Power Group invited bids for a contract to build a 30,000-tonne nuclear-powered ship, which it described as an “experimental platform.”
The first source said the “experimental platform” was intended as a way to test the nuclear reactors that would later be installed on aircraft carriers.
Notices released by the PLA last year showed it had bought a series of reports on how to build a nuclear propulsion system. The PLA has more than a dozen nuclear-powered submarines, including the Type 091, Type 093 and Type 095.
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said a nuclear power system would not only enable the aircraft carriers’ electromagnetic catapult systems to operate more smoothly but also support high-energy weapons like laser and rail guns.
“Also, the control tower island on a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is much smaller than a conventionally powered platform so it frees up more space for aircraft,” he said.
It is not known how big China’s fourth aircraft carrier will be, but its third has a displacement of about 85,000 tonnes.
Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy, said if the PLA decided to use nuclear power for its fourth aircraft carrier, it was possible the CSSC might in the future convert the steam turbines on its conventionally powered sister ship into nuclear reactors.
The PLA did something similar with the Liaoning – its first aircraft carrier, which was based on an unfinished Soviet vessel that China bought from Ukraine in 1998 – after seeing how new technologies worked on the country’s first domestically developed carrier, the Shandong, Lu said.
The Liaoning, which joined the PLA Navy in 2012, underwent a lengthy retrofit between late 2018 and early 2019.
Images released online by the CSSC showed that the design and size of the control tower on the third carrier is similar to the one on the Liaoning and Shandong, which Li said was the “normal design” for a conventionally powered vessel.
“Conventionally powered carriers need a bigger control tower because of the need for chimneys for the emissions,” he said.
Other reports published online said China’s third aircraft carrier would be launched by July 1, which marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
But Zhou Chenming, a researcher with the Beijing-based military think tank Yuan Wang, said that was unlikely as “quality assurance is always the top priority” on carrier projects.
“Weapon systems are built for combat, not to celebrate special days,” he said.
China’s navy said earlier it planned to launch at least six aircraft carrier strike groups by 2035, in a bid to match the naval strength of the United States in the Pacific region.
According to a recent story published in Naval News, for the first time, the power module for the F-35C Lightning II multirole combat aircraft has been delivered by a CMV-22B Osprey to an aircraft carrier at sea, the USS Carl Vinson.
The engine was an F-135 Power Module, which is common to all three variants of the F-35 aircraft.
To the casual observer, this may not seem like an event of much importance, but for the Navy and the Marine Corps that fly the plane, this is a very big deal.
It is said that when it comes to the art of war, amateurs talk about tactics while professionals talk about logistics. And the F-35 coming into naval service created some unique logistical challenges for the Navy and Marine Corps.
There are some 500 F-35s currently in service building to a peak strength of over 2,400. While the F-35 holds out the promise of incredible performance and combat capability, none of that will matter if these aircraft cannot be sustained while operating at sea.
One of the major problems was that the hot exhaust of the F-35’s engine tended to melt the flight decks of the ships they were landing on. The same problem existed with the V-22 Osprey and its engine nacelles when in the vertical position. The Navy solved that problem by making the decks more heat-resistant.
The F-35 also incorporates an automated parts system that tracks every component installed on this enormously complex aircraft to keep track of its performance and durability. This system has also been plagued with data-entry problems that are still being worked out.
This is in no way unique to the introduction of a new aircraft into the Navy or Air Force. You can plan very carefully to take all factors into account, but logging hours with the F-35 in the real world is necessary to find problems no one ever thought of. One of those problems for the F-35 was engine swaps.
The Lightning II uses the Pratt and Whitney F-135 Power Module designed to be unplugged and removed from the aircraft. It is then shipped as a single unit to a maintenance facility ashore to be overhauled and then returned to the squadrons as a spare.
Building a fleet of F-35s is pricey, but their construction cost isn’t the only cost involved. To keep these planes flying and fighting requires a very long and expensive logistics “tail” of spare parts and engines. This is why about 70% of the Navy’s weapons budget is just for the sustainment of the weapons it already has.
When it comes to the F-35C and its modular powerplant, the Navy needed to buy hundreds of spare engines that need to be replaced after a certain number of running hours are logged. The problem was how to get them out to the aircraft carriers that have Lightning squadrons.
The F-135 Power Module is a beast in terms of weight and size. It’s over 4,500 pounds and too large to fit into the cargo bay of the ancient C-2A Greyhounds. Further, you cannot just slam the F-35C’s engine onto the deck during a carrier landing and not expect it to be damaged. In contrast, the Osprey will be able to land vertically with a minimum of shock and vibration to the Power Module.
Now here is why this rather mundane delivery of an F-35C engine to the Vinson matters so much: If the F-35C is fully sustainable at sea the Navy can roughly double its carrier strike capability and give the Marine Corps the ability to provide its own close air support and inland strike capability without needing a Carrier Strike Group to help them.
Using the fleet’s current amphibious landing ships with flight decks the Navy could put to sea with 24-25 aircraft carriers flying variants of the F-35, instead of just 12 supercarriers. And for Marines landing ashore, it would be its own F-35B in the VTOL variant providing not just close air support for troops on the beach but also a deep inland strike capability.
There are still other logistical problems to be worked out. For example, Navy ships and resupply vessels need larger electric motors and specialized skids to sling the power module during replenishment-at-sea operations, and an Osprey variant that can do in-flight refueling for the F-35 is badly needed.
But being able to fly 1,000 miles out to sea and gently land the power module for these aircraft brings us much closer to the game-changer that the Lightning II aircraft promised to be at its inception.
Warship captains showed strong support for the commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, Capt. Brett Crozier, in emails sent just before the Navy fired him, Task & Purpose reported Friday.
A collection of 1,200 emails sent to and from Crozier’s email between March 25, 2020 and April 2, 2020 that were obtained by Task & Purpose and reported by Jeff Schogol reveal that Crozier had not only the support of his crew when he was relieved of his command, but also the support of fellow skippers.
The Navy publicly acknowledged that there was a COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt on March 24, 2020, revealing that three sailors had tested positive.
The number of coronavirus cases soared within a matter of days as the carrier was forced into port in Guam.
“If there is ever a time to ask for help it is now regardless of the impact on my career,” Crozier wrote.
The letter, which was also sent to some Navy personnel outside Crozier’s chain of command, leaked to The San Francisco Chronicle and published in full on March 31, and on April 2, acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly fired Crozier for “poor judgement.” Modly resigned a week later after a series of missteps, which included speaking ill of the captain to his crew.
“I read your letter yesterday in the SF Chronicle,” Capt. Matthew Paradise, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, wrote in an email to Crozier on April 1.
“I thought it was awesome and a textbook example of speaking truth to power and taking care of your troops,” he said.
Another email obtained by Task & Purpose was from Capt. Sean Bailey, then the commanding officer of the carrier USS George H.W. Bush.
“I know you are feeling an immense amount of heat and outside pressure from everything that is going on right now, but wanted to let you know that the people who matter still support you,” the captain wrote in an email sent on April 1.
“I admire your commitment to communicating candidly to leadership and I’m confident that the ‘leak’ to the SF Chronicle was someone else’s misdirected motivation,” Bailey said. “I know that you are doing what is right to take care of your Sailors and your ship. Let me know if I can help.”
In a March 31 email to the captain, Cmdr. Patrick Eliason, then the skipper of the destroyer USS The Sullivans, thanked Crozier for “having the guts” to write the letter that ultimately derailed his career.
After he was relieved of his command, Crozier departed his ship, but he did so to the sound of his crew chanting his name. Modly was angered by videos of this send-off and flew to Guam afterwards to address the crew, a trip that would cost him job and taxpayers an estimated $243,000.
“Had I known then what I know today, I would not have made that recommendation to reinstate Capt. Crozier. Moreover, if Capt. Crozier were still command today, I would be relieving him,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said last June.
He argued that Crozier “fell well short of what we expect of those in command.”
The Navy battled the outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt for months and did end up eventually evacuating the majority of the crew as more than one thousand sailors tested positive for COVID-19. A number of sailors were hospitalized by the virus, and one sailor died.
NORFOLK, Virginia – If an aircraft carrier did not have Aviation Boatswain’s Mates (Equipment), also known as ABEs, carriers would just be carrying aircraft. Flight operations wouldn’t be possible, and one of the carrier’s primary missions couldn’t be accomplished.
ABEs assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), work with first-in-class technology known as Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) and Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). Ford’s ABEs are specifically charged with learning these new systems and paving the way for future Ford-class carriers.
“ABEs conventionally are steam and hydraulic related so that’s all we deal with. So here we have had to adapt to the electrical side of our rate,” said Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) 1st Class David Vonbehren, from Cincinnati, assigned to Ford’s air department as the bow catapults leading petty officer. “As far as Nimitz [class], everything has been laid out for them over lots of years. They have got everything set up, we had to start everything from the ground up here.”
Ford-class carriers have optimized manning, which allows them to operate with fewer personnel than Nimitz-class carriers. In the air department’s V-2 division there are approximately 25 ABEs, half the amount that would be assigned on a Nimitz-class carrier.
They also work with many other departments on the ship to maintain their equipment such as reactor, supply, and engineering.
“On a Nimitz-class carrier it’s hydraulics. Here it’s mostly electrical,” said Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) 1st Class Kimberley O’Donnell, from Silverdale, Washington, assigned to Ford’s air department as the arresting gear leading petty officer. “Engineering helps us out a lot by helping us get parts from the hanger bay to the 03 level, when we have to replace parts.”
While Ford is underway, ABEs are continually testing the equipment and stressing them to their limits.
“EMALS is the future of the Navy,” said Vonbehren. “There is not going to be another aircraft carrier that is going to be able to contend with us.”
Though the work life of an ABE can vary depending on what ship they work on or what equipment they maintain, Vonbehren says some consistent characteristics you will find in any ABE is that they are knowledgeable, hardworking and adaptable.
“With every ABE comes adaptability and versatility. Each day is started with an open mind and the acceptance of the challenges that have not yet been revealed,” said Chief (Sel) Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) Justin Knighton, from Euless, Texas, assigned to Ford’s air department as the bow catapults leading chief petty officer. “Through blood and sweat, no matter the elements, an ABE will complete the mission.”
Ford is underway in the Atlantic Ocean conducting carrier qualifications.