When China sailed one of its two active aircraft carriers, the Shandong, east of Taiwan as part of military exercises surrounding the island last month, it demonstrated a capability it had not yet mastered and could take years to perfect.
As Beijing modernizes its military, the United States and its allies are concerned about China's formidable missile forces and other naval vessels, such as cutting-edge cruisers. According to four military attaches and six defense analysts with knowledge of regional naval deployments, it could be more than a decade before China can pose a credible threat far from its shores.
Attaches and analysts told Reuters that China's aircraft carriers are more of a propaganda showpiece, with doubts about their value in a potential conflict with the United States over Taiwan and whether China could defend them on longer-range missions into the Pacific Indian oceans.
China's Defense Ministry did not respond to inquiries about its carrier program, but Reuters' review of dozens of articles in state-affiliated journals reveals that Chinese military analysts are aware of the country's carrier capability deficiencies.
While some regional press coverage, partially based on Chinese state media reports, depicted recent exercises around Taiwan as active patrols and a military challenge to the United States and its allies, eight experts stated that the Chinese aircraft carriers are still in training mode.
Several attaches and analysts stated that landing aircraft at night and in inclement weather, both crucial to regular offshore carrier operations, remain far from routine.
And in a conflict, China's aircraft carriers would be susceptible to missile and submarine attacks, according to some experts, as the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has not yet refined protective screening operations, especially anti-submarine warfare.
Former British naval intelligence analyst Trevor Hollingsbee remarked that, in contrast to other aspects of the British military's modernization, the carrier deployments thus far have a theatrical quality.
"Carrier operations are an extremely complex game, and China must sort this out on its own. It still has a long, long distance to go."
Occasionally, China's carrier pilots have used land-based airfields for takeoffs and landings, as well as for additional air cover and surveillance, according to attaches who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Even though China's Liaoning and Shandong carriers sailed into the western Pacific in recent months, approaching U.S. bases on Guam, they remained within the range of Chinese coastal airfields, according to Rira Momma, professor of security studies at Takushoku University's Institute of World Studies, who reviewed tracking data from the Japanese defense ministry.
The Liaoning, a refurbished ex-Soviet vessel, and the Shandong, a Chinese-built vessel, have takeoff platforms that restrict the number and range of aircraft on board.
Anti-submarine helicopters operate from both carriers and China's Type 055 cruisers but the carriers have yet to deploy an early warning aircraft, instead relying on land-based aircraft, according to ten experts.
According to the Pentagon's most recent annual report on China's military, the KJ-600, a new aircraft designed to perform a role comparable to that of the E-2C/D Hawkeye launched from U.S. carriers, is still undergoing testing.
State media reported last month that China is preparing for sea trials of its next-generation aircraft carrier, the 80,000-ton Fujian, as the Liaoning and Shandong progressively stepped up their drills. Though conventionally powered, the Fujian is substantially larger and equipped with electromagnetic catapults for launching aircraft.
According to a Pentagon report, the ship, which could be operational by 2024, is expected to transport new variants of the J-15 jet fighter, replacing the current model, which foreign analysts consider to be underpowered.
Collin Koh, a defense scholar at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, stated, "The Fujian, with its more modern capabilities, will be used as a test bed for a number of years."
"Until we see the next generation of carriers, the Chinese designs and PLAN's intentions will not be fully resolved."
The carrier program reflects the goal of the governing Communist Party to make the People's Liberation Army (PLA) a "world-class" military by 2049, which is part of President Xi Jinping's vision for constructing a "great modern socialist country."
Attaches stated that a sign of China's ambitions would be if aircraft carriers built after the Fujian were nuclear-powered like U.S. aircraft carriers, enabling for global range.
A December report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service of the United States stated that China would use its aircraft carriers to project power ", particularly in scenarios that do not involve opposing U.S. forces" and "to impress or intimidate foreign observers."
Several nations employ aircraft carriers, but the United States remains the preeminent power with 11 carrier battlegroups capable of global operations.
China, on the other hand, could employ its aircraft carriers predominantly in the Asian theater, along with submarines and anti-ship missiles, in an effort to control its near seas.
Given the island's proximity to land-based airfields, the apparition of the Shandong off Taiwan's east coast last month to conduct mock strikes surprised some analysts. In the short term, however, China's military would struggle to defend the carrier in a conflict with U.S. and allied forces in the western Pacific.
"China's objective with the deployment of the Shandong is clear, it is a symbol of its political anger" over U.S. engagement with Taiwan, said Yoji Koda, the former commander of the Japanese fleet.
In a battle, he stated, it "would be an excellent target for American and Japanese forces, and they would destroy it immediately."
Under the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, a U.S. defense official stated that while China had made progress with its aircraft carriers, it had not yet mastered operations in difficult conditions or how to defend the vessels.
The official stated that one concern was how the ships would be useful in a conflict.
Hopes and Shortcomings
According to a Reuters review of more than 100 recent articles published in dozens of Chinese defense journals available to the public, Chinese military and government researchers appear to be aware of the challenges.
In October, the official PLA Daily published an interview with an aircraft carrier aviation unit in which the deputy chief of staff, Dai Xing, admitted "many shortcomings in preparing for war" and a disparity between the training level of sailors and combat requirements.
A September editorial titled "Four Great Advantages the PLA Has in Attacking Taiwan" and published in a magazine by a PLA weapons manufacturer did not mention the role of Chinese carriers. Instead, it was stated that China's land-based ballistic missiles would be sufficient to counter any intervention by U.S. carriers.
Two previous editorials from the same publication, Tank and Armoured Vehicle, stated that China's aircraft carriers would remain immature for the foreseeable future and that other surface ships would be more useful in an East China Sea conflict.
Other articles in comparable publications describe problems with pilot recruitment and training, vulnerabilities to submarine attacks, and command issues, which, according to some foreign analysts, pose a problem for a navy that still employs political commissars with executive authority.
When at sea, U.S. aircraft carriers routinely operate fighter, electronic-warfare, and surveillance aircraft to create a protective screen for the battlegroup.
In addition to the expense and danger of such operations, mastering devolved command systems is crucial, especially during a crisis such as a fire or accident aboard while the flight deck is disabled and the aircraft is in flight.
The U.S. has spent decades refining such systems, expanding carrier operations after recognizing their significance during the Allied victory in the Pacific during World War II.
Alexander Neill, an adjunct fellow with Hawaii's Pacific Forum and a defense analyst based in Singapore, stated, "The continuous operation of its aircraft carriers is at the heart of what makes the U.S. military preeminent."
Medium-term, China will likely begin dispatching battlegroups into the Indian Ocean, where its presence is minimal beyond routine submarine operations, according to the attaches and defense analysts.
China's capability would be tested if it operated far from the safety of land-based airfields, but preparations are ongoing.
The Pentagon report noted that the pier at China's first significant offshore military base in Djibouti had been extended and can now accommodate a carrier.