Speaking to a group of delegates at a Communist Party meeting on the navy, Hu described China as a major maritime country whose naval forces must be improved:
"We should strive to build a powerful navy that adapts to the needs of our military's historical mission in this new century and at this new stage... We should make sound preparations for military struggles and ensure that the forces can effectively carry out missions at any time," said Hu, pictured in green military garb for the occasion.
Underscoring the importance of Hu's remarks, his comments were carried on the front pages of both the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the PRC Communist Party, and the People's Liberation Army Daily, the media organ for the Chinese military.
What's unclear (at this point) is whether Hu's remarks will reflect an actual shift in China's naval doctrine and forces. Despite recent modernization efforts, the People's Liberation Army Navy (the official name for Beijing's naval forces) is unable to provide much more than a symbolic presence on maritime approaches to the PRC.
Fielding a blue-water navy, capable of sustained operations at great distances from China's shores, will take time, and a considerable investment of resources. As the Defense Department noted in its 2006 edition of Military Power of the People's Republic of China, the shift to blue-water operations (and a "sea control" strategy) would require, among other things:
- Acquisition of large numbers of nuclear attack submarines
- Development of a true, area anti-air warfare capability
- Increased open water training
- Creation of an effective maritime C4ISR system
- Development of robust, deep-water anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities
- Deployment of an aircraft carrier
While Beijing has made progress in most of these areas, it still lacks sufficient naval power to challenge U.S. carrier groups operating east of Taiwan, and that appears to be the sort of capability Mr. Hu is alluding to. China's current maritime strategy is currently based on the concept of area denial, aimed at preventing enemy naval forces from deploying to the Taiwan Strait, where they could disrupt an invasion of Taiwan, reinforce the island's defenses, and conduct sustained operations against the mainland.
One of the more interesting aspects of China's evolving naval strategy is the carrier option. Projecting (and sustaining) maritime power in distant waters dictates development of an aircraft carrier and embarked air wing, and Beijing has been working on that issue for more than 20 years. Most of the recent effort has focused on a partially-completed Russian carrier (the Varyag), purchased by the PLAN in 1998. Recent work on the vessel--and China's interest in naval versions of Russian-built FLANKER fighters--suggest that the Varyag could be used for purposes ranging from a technology testbed, training vessel, or even as an operational carrier. However, most analysts don't believe that Beijing will have an operational aircraft carrier until 2020; Hu's remarks could be an indicator that the carrier project will take on new emphasis (and urgency) in the coming years.
Without a carrier (and the rest of a blue-water fleet), China will continue to rely on its expanding sub fleet, growing numbers of modern surface combatants, shore-based aircraft and even ballistic missiles to defend its home waters against our naval forces. But Mr. Hu and his military advisors clearly recognize the flaws in their current strategy. Taking on the U.S. Navy will require capabilities that Beijing currently lacks. Filling those gaps will apparently be a major priority for China's defense establishment over the next decade.
Addendum: As the Chinese have probably discovered, building a naval air arm is no easy feat. Beyond the construction of a carrier, there's the task of actually training pilots to operate from a heaving deck, in all types of weather. The Russians monitored U.S. carrier operations for years before launching their early, Moskava and Kiev-class "aviation" cruisers in the 1970s. As their name implied, those ships were half cruiser, half carrier, with a small complement of Yak FORGER VSTOL aircraft (on the Kiev-class ships) and ASW helicopters onboard. Yet despite years of study and development, the Russians still learned a few lessons the hard way, thanks to part to their choice of naval aircraft.
The FORGER is best-described as a poor man's copy of the Harrier, with limited avionics and weaponry, and grossly underpowered. On a few occasions, our "shadow" aircraft or surface vessels watched a FORGER pilot descend too slowly. Lacking the power to ascend and try again, the Russian pilot could only watch in horror as the ship sailed out from under his jet, and the aircraft dropped into the water.
Fortunately for Beijing, the Russians learned from their mistakes. The FLANKER variants they may offer for a Chinese aircraft carrier are modern, naval strike fighters, similar to the U.S. F/A-18. But proficiency in carrier ops will take patience and lots of practice. There will certainly be accidents along the way, but the Chinese are willing to pay that price to attain needed military capabilities.