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Reading At Tea Leaves

By Taylor Marvin

Chinese carrier Shi Lang nearing completion.

Chinese carrier Shi Lang nearing completion.

David Axe scrutinizes photos of the under construction Chinese carrier Shi Lang (formerly the Soviet Varyag) and concludes that the Chinese are developing a carrier-borne Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft similar to the US E-2 Hawkeye. In Axe’s eyes, this significantly raises the projected operational effectiveness of the Chinese carrier:

“In any event, if the Xian photo indeed shows a naval radar plane, then Shi Lang will be a much more capable vessel than originally projected.”

At Information Dissemination, Galrahn isn’t so sure:

“Not quite. There is no chance this aircraft will ever be deployed on the Shi Lang, and I believe it is the same reason why we don’t have a good, clear picture of this aircraft. The issue is an imitation E-2 would struggle to take off on the Shi Lang, because any aircraft as big and heavy as an E-2 would absolutely require a catapult launch – and Shi Lang doesn’t have catapults.

If indeed China is building several of these “Hawkeye” imitations, then the key detail we would be learning is in regards to the kind of new aircraft carrier China would supposedly be building. We’ll have to wait to see better pictures before we can say we know anything for certain, but while we wait for better understanding of new Chinese aircraft carriers, we can safely say that AEW for Shi Lang will be restricted to helicopters unless that ship suddenly has catapults installed somehow.”

This offers some insights into the mindset of China’s strategic planners. If the Chinese are truly developing a naval AEW platform, it won’t have a catapult-equipped carrier to operate from for decades. However, like the J-20, a land-based AEW aircraft would be an important strategic asset in the South China Sea and the rest of China’s continental shelf. While the fact that China’s naval planning appears to be limited to the near-shore western Pacific is likely due as much to economic limitations as a deliberate strategic choice, Chinese naval planners appear to be preparing not for international power projection but an attempt at regional naval hegemony. China certainly is moving towards a more aggressive international stance and is increasingly prepared to advocate for foreign military actions that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, but American commentators raising the specter of Chinese ambitions in the eastern Pacific and Indian ocean are likely overreacting, at least in the near term.

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