Wednesday, 30 April 2014

NATO warships are sending a mixed message to Russia

A group of NATO warships, 4 minehunters and 1 command and support ship, has arrived in the Baltic Sea. Their aim is to reassure the Baltic states that NATO will be there to defend them against a possible Russian aggression as well as show NATO resolve to act and react to an international crisis as required.

NATO did, however, send  a mixed message to Russia. On the one side it shows that NATO will respond to what it believes to be ongoing unilateral Russian aggression and that it will come to the aid of the Baltic states to deter Russia for making any moves over there. Al three countries have an ethnic Russian minority and this could in theory lead to the same situation as in Crimea with Russia organizing protests, a referendum and annexation of these areas. Although this scenario is theoretically possible, the question remains wheter Russia is willing to execute it in EU/NATO countries.

On the other side however, NATO sends a message of military weakness against the Russians. Russia’s Baltic fleet consists of Sovremenny class destroyers, Neustrashimyy class frigates and Steregushchy class corvettes as well as a Lada and 2 Kilo class submarines. Include the several older corvettes from the Soviet era and one can easily see that 4 minehunters and 1 command ship will not make a difference in the balance of power in the Baltic Sea.

NATO, and western politicians, are careful not to provoke Russia and are aiming for a de-escalation of the Ukrainian crisis. In their view, sending a military force to deter the Russians from using an aggressive policy makes sense. However, they don’t want to start sending a major amount of forces in this area out of fear that the Russians would be threatened and start taking countermeasures. Sending a token force seems to make the most sense from this point of view.

One must however take into account the way the Russians see things. In Russia strength is measured by showing brute force. There is a reason why President Putin has built a macho culture around himself, why military maneuvers take place at the Ukrainian border and why Russia sends warships towards Syria when it disagrees with the United States of America over how to deal with the Assad-regime. Showing brute force means strength. From this point of view the appearance of 4 minehunters in the Baltic Sea, ships that cannot defend themselves, let alone go on the attack; is viewed as a sign of military weakness by Russia.

Had NATO sent a force of frigates and destroyers in the Baltic Sea, it would have sent a clear message to Russia about NATO’s resolve to stand up and protect the Baltic States. The big question is whether or not such a move might have intimidated the Russians enough to make them feel threatened in such a way that they feel the need to build up their forces. There is a fine line between deterrence and provocation, especially against an assertive Russia that is flexing its muscles more and more. NATO decided to send a small token force that cannot be seen as a provocation but the danger is that this force is not even seen as a real deterrence.

The big question behind this deployment still remains unanswered. Is NATO afraid to provoke the Russians by not deploying more potent ships such as frigates to send a warning? Is there a fundamental weakness within the decision making process in NATO? Is there a fear within that the deployment of fighting forces could lead us back to a new Cold War? This is a question that cannot be easily answered with just one case. However, as long as NATO continues to send token forces as a response to Russia’s politics it will miss its effect. Token forces without any strength will only be seen as a sign of weakness by Russia and might encourage Russia to take more bold actions.

Friday, 25 April 2014

What will China’s future carrier fleet be?

It took China more than a decade to build its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. The Liaoning is a rebuilt soviet aircraft carrier, formally known as the Varyag. Now that China has learned to build an aircraft carrier it started to build more. News reports have confirmed that 2 new carriers are building build, one in Dailan in the north and 1 in Shanghai. Rumors have it that a total of 3 carriers are being built. No matter the numbers, everybody knows that China envisions to build several carriers and built a true aircraft carrier fleet to strengthen its navy. With a Chinese carrier fleet ready in the next several years it would be wise to speculate on what this force will look like and what capabilities it will have.

The Liaoning escorted with 2 destroyers and 2 frigates during her last training mission

Design is a major factor in asserting  what China’s future carrier fleet will look like and what it will be capable of. Carriers are divided into 2 different types of design: short take-off but arrested-recovery (STOBAR) and catapult-assisted take-off but arrested-recovery (CATOBAR). These design types also determine what kind of aircraft carriers can operate and in turn what kind of missions can be executed.

China’s only carrier, Liaoning, is a STOBAR design. Aircraft launch under their own power using a ski-jump to assist take-off. The STOBAR system has the advantage that it is simpler to build than CATOBAR — but it works only with light, and lightly armed, fighter aircraft that have a high thrust to weight ratio. From this last sentence one can easily conclude that aircraft, launched by a STOBAR system have to be light. They can carry only a limited amount of fuel and weapons. Therefor these aircraft are suited only for defense, defending the carrier and its escorts and secure air superiority directly around the task force.

CATOBAR is a system in which aircraft are launched using a catapult assisted take off and land on the ship (the recovery phase) using arrestor wires. The advantage of this system is that it can launch heavier fighters than the STOBAR system. Aircraft with a higher weight in fuel and weapons can be launched with a CATOBAR system. These aircraft have a bigger range and are more suited for offensive capabilities by bringing heavier firepower in the conflict zone.

The question is whether China will choose to use the STOBAR or CATOBAR system for its new carriers. Given that the Liaoning is a STOBAR carrier one would say that China would continue to build STOBAR carriers. However in 1985 China managed to buy the HMAS Melbourne, Australia’s only carrier and equipped with steam catapults. Although China promised to turn the HMAS Melbourne into scrap the ship was studied in depth and the ship's flight deck and all the equipment associated with flight operations was removed for study, including the steam catapults that were left on board. So China has the technology and the know how to build CATOBAR carriers by using the design of the steam catapults of the HMAS Melbourne .

As said earlier, the design of the carrier determines the kind of aircraft that is to be used on board of the carrier. STOBAR demands light aircraft like the Sukhoi SU-33, Mikoyan MiG-29 or the Shenyang J-15. These are aircraft that can carry only a small payload in weapons and a limited amount of fuel. Too much weight would prevent these planes from taking of. Their limited fuel and payload prevent these aircraft from carrying out offensive missions over a long distance. They are best suited to create air superiority over the task force itself and protect it against air attacks from enemy aircraft. Due to their low weight and the high thrust to weight ratio needed for take-off, these aircraft are very maneuverable and can easily outmaneuver their opponents in a dog fight.

CATOBAR on the other hand allows for the launch of bigger, heavier planes like the F-18 (super) Hornet and the Dassault Rafale. These aircraft can take a large amount of fuel and weapons with them, thus traveling several hundreds of miles to their target zone and delivering a large amount of firepower on their targets. It is clearly that such aircraft are best suited for offensive missions.

A downside is that a STOBAR aircraft cannot be launched with a catapult. STOBAR aircraft are light aircraft and their frame cannot withstand the forces generated by a catapult. Launching a STOBAR aircraft with a catapult will result in the aircraft being snapped in two.

So even when China is planning to build a CATOBAR aircraft carrier, it still would need to design new aircraft that are suited for operating on this carrier. This gives the intelligence community a new angle in monitoring China’s carrier program. As long as the Chinese aren’t designing and building aircraft that can be used on a CATOBAR carrier then the likelihood of China developing a CATOBAR carrier is low.

As said earlier, a STOBAR carrier has light aircraft and is suited for defense while a CATOBAR carrier is suited for offense. As the design determines the aircraft a carrier can deploy, so too do the aircraft determine the type of tactics and missions. We in the West are used to the idea that carriers are offensive weapons, bringing firepower to a conflict zone several hundreds of miles away from the carrier. STOBAR carriers can only achieve local air superiority above the carrier task group and are thus only suited for defense. So how can the Chinese overcome the limitations of a STOBAR carrier?

A western carrier task force is centered around the aircraft carrier that is the principal weapon in the task force. The cruisers and destroyers around it serve only as protection. It would be wrong to assume that China would just copy the way carriers are operated in the West.

For a long time China had to rely on frigates and destroyers to form the bulk of their naval power. These ships were armed with several anti-ship missiles to attack enemy warships. The Chinese military is strongly missile minded, this is proven by the development of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) like the Dong-Feng 21 (DF-21D) to strike at enemy aircraft carriers up to distances of 1.500 km from the Chinese shore. We can expect that China, even with the formation of aircraft carrier task forces, will still be missile minded in which the frigates and destroyers will be the offensive units or shooters. The carrier will then be used to protect these shooters against enemy airstrike until they are in range to attack. 

China has recently also found a way around the limited range of its J-15 fighters by using air-to-air refueling. The first J-15 will take off from the carrier without weapons but with all the fuel it can carry while the second one takes off with a maximum payload of weapons. Once airborne, the second J-15 fighter then refuels from the first one and can now fly further and with more weapons than when taking off in the normal configuration. The first J-15 then returns to the carrier either to get ready to refuel another fighter or to provide air cover above the carrier.

This system allows China to operate its carriers further then is normally presumed and with a heavier payload then intended. Although this tactic doesn’t fully compare against the use of a CATOBAR aircraft like a F-18, it is an interesting way to give Chinese carrier aircraft an offensive set up.

China possesses the capabilities of building steam catapults with the purchase of the HMAS Melbourne in 1985. This would allow the Chinese to start building a CATOBAR carrier faster than is anticipated since a large step in research and development is skipped. Even if China can build a CATOBAR carrier it still lacks the planes capable of operating from such a carrier as China’s current carrier aircraft, the J-15, can’t handle the forces generated by a catapult take-off. A new type of aircraft would have to be developed by the Chinese.

China’s fleet of STOBAR carriers would however fit the Chinese missile centered doctrine and carrier aircraft are just needed to protect the frigates and destroyers that are currently the main offensive units within the Chinese Navy. A CATOBAR carrier would then only be needed if China chooses to be a global maritime player and feels the need to intervene far away from its shore where planes with a long range and a high payload in weapons would allow China to intervene in a conflict zone without risking to put its aircraft carrier too close to this zone. However, using air-to-air refueling, China might have found a way in giving its STOBAR carriers a more offensive role instead of a purely defensive one.