The Weekly Wire: For Your Situational Awareness 12/12/19
China Reshuffles Carrier Priorities
Aaron Lin, Senior Market Analyst
On November 28, news sources announced that China would freeze the construction of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) fifth and sixth aircraft carriers, with the information reportedly coming from a military source inside China. Rising costs, technical challenges, and budgetary pressure were cited as the main drivers. While at first glance this may appear to be a major setback for China if true, it is not as big of a blow to China’s carrier plans as some headlines may suggest. Rather, it is better to characterize this potential development as a logical re-prioritization in response to the difficulties of building a credible carrier force. Instead of rushing to build additional carriers, China appears to be placing more emphasis on resolving other hurdles it already faces with carrier-borne fighters, the construction of battle groups, and training.
First, there are issues with the J-15, China’s only carrier-based fighter aircraft. The military has reportedly been increasingly dissatisfied with the aircraft after a series of crashes and design problems. A new carrier-based fighter is reportedly being designed, possibly based on the Shenyang FC-31. Chinese military officials publicized their intention to develop a new carrier-based fighter in July 2018. The FC-31 was designed by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation but has never entered production due to a failed bid in the 2000s to build a stealth fighter for China. If China wants to give the FC-31 a second lease on life by making a carrier-based variant of the fighter, it would mean that the FC-31 design would need to be extensively reworked in order to withstand carrier landings, catapult launches, and the corrosive maritime environment. Even if development had started a few years before the public acknowledgement in 2018 to build a new carrier-based fighter, it would mean that the new aircraft would not be ready for service until the late 2020s.
Second, China will need time to build all of the ships that will be part of the carrier battle group. No carrier ever sails alone; they are always escorted by submarines, surface combat vessels, and replenishment ships. While the exact composition of China’s future carrier group is unknown, a battle group consisting one Type 093 nuclear attack submarine, one Type 055 cruiser, four destroyers or frigates, and one Type 901 fast replenishment vessel would be similar to what the US Navy would deploy in its own carrier groups. Some believe that the Chinese carrier group could be larger than American carrier groups due to the fewer number of VLS cells on Type 052D destroyers. However, China still needs to keep several surface combatants and submarines close to its coast to defend against potential threats emanating from the US and its allies. Chinese naval planners may not want to provide carriers with too many supporting ships if it sacrifices readiness in waters closer to the mainland. By holding off on construction on the fifth and sixth carriers, Chinese shipbuilders can instead concentrate on the production of new surface combatants and submarines, ensuring that they will be able to stand up to threats that emerge in the next 20-30 years.
Lastly, training pilots to fly from aircraft carriers, and sailors to operate and fight as a coordinated battle group, takes years of intense training. Compounding the problem is the fact that China does not have a partner that could help accelerate the training process. Russia has an aircraft carrier, but since it has spent a significant amount of time docked for maintenance, Russia’s carrier operation experience is likely to be insufficient for China’s requirements. Brazil trained PLAN pilots on carrier landings in 2013 but recently retired its only carrier in 2017.
China is aware of the carrier-borne fighter issues, construction of the battle group, and training needs, and it will likely look for a solution to these problems in the near term. The freeze on the fifth and sixth carriers suggests that China is simply reshuffling its priorities with regard to its future carrier fleet.
On December the 11, reports surfaced that Japan had once again reversed course on final assembly plans for its F-35 fighters, with the country now planning to shift back to a domestic final assembly line for the aircraft. Beginning in April 2019, the Japanese government had begun shifting away from using the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ (MHI) assembly line in favor of purchasing completed aircraft from Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Texas, production line in order to cut costs ahead of a planned follow-on order for 105 additional F-35s. This shift in policy is the result of improvements MHI was able to make to its assembly line and facilities that will make the process about $460,000 cheaper than shipping the completed aircraft over from the US.
This comes at an important time for both the Japanese fighter industry and Lockheed Martin, as the decision around the selection of a partner for the F-3 fighter program is expected for next year. With both BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin competing fiercely for the award, the decision to continue the final assembly process in Japan serves the interest of both sides as Japan is able to maintain sufficient backlog for local industry to maintain expertise, while Lockheed Martin is able to point toward established past performance and local partnership in the F-3 competition.
On December 5, the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) awarded six contracts to begin work on replacing NATO’s E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) fleet. The contracts were awarded to Boeing ABILITI Consortium, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Airbus, L3Harris Consortium, and MDA (Canada). NATO’s AWACS fleet is expected to retire by 2035, after 50 years of service. Boeing was recently awarded a $1 billion contract to modernize the 14 E-3s owned by NATO, specifically the communication and network capabilities on the aircraft. The acquisition of a new airborne early warning and control aircraft will be acquired under NATO’s Alliance Future Surveillance and Control (AFSC) program, which began in 2017. The first phase of the program, which included studies and evaluation on new technologies, was completed in December 2018. Phase 2, which is currently underway, includes the recent contract announcements to the various suppliers.
On December 5, General Dynamics European Land Systems was awarded a contract to provide 100 Eagle V 6×6 vehicles to the Swiss Army for $384 million. The vehicles will be the base platform for the TASYS reconnaissance system that will feature a mast-mounted multi-sensor system. Production will start in 2020 with delivery taking place from 2023-2025. The Swiss Army already operates the Eagle V 4×4 platform and is the launch customer for the 6×6 variant. The Eagle V is also a contender for the UK’s Multi-Role Vehicle-Protected Category 2 program, where it is competing against the Thales Bushmaster.
On December 10, the Philippine government announced that is looking to acquire the BrahMos cruise missile from India. Secretary of the Department of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana stated that the Philippines can afford the missiles as part of its current military modernization plan, called the Second Horizon of the Revised Armed Forces of the Philippines Modernization Program, which runs from 2018 to 2022 and sets aside PHP300 billion (~USD $5.91 billion) for the acquisition of new defense equipment. The new cruise missiles would likely be used to help the Philippines protect its territorial waters from foreign encroachment.