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World Naval Developments 2012

What follows are only highlights of world naval developments and programs for 2012. They are restricted to a few navies, and within those navies to a few high-profile programs.

Surely the most spectacular naval developments this year were the latest installments in the continuing sagas of the Chinese and Indian aircraft carrier forces. The Chinese finally commissioned their carrier as Liaoning, having decided not to name it Shi Lang, after the Chinese admiral who conquered Taiwan centuries ago. Reportedly they were responding to Taiwanese entreaties, and probably to renewed promises that the island would not declare independence. The chosen name is the province in which the ship, formerly the Russian Varyag, was refitted and modernized. The ship has run repeated sea trials.

This year Chinese and Japanese forces almost came to blows over the ownership of the tiny Senkaku Islands south of Japan. The islands are uninhabited, but they lie in an area of the South China Sea that China first claimed in 1947, before the current Communist regime took power. The area is generally believed to be mineral-rich, hence well worth disputing. It is known to be a rich fishery, and for years it has been assumed that there are huge undersea oil and gas reserves (as yet unproven, however).

By November, after trying touch-and-goes, the Chinese had accumulated enough experience to make arrested landings and ski-jump takeoffs using two J-15 (reverse-engineered from a Russian Su-33) carrier-based fighter/strike aircraft. They had not yet operated multiple aircraft simultaneously.

This year the Chinese also announced that they would produce the Russian TU-22M Backfire bomber under license, specifically as a maritime strike aircraft. During the Cold War, missile-bearing Backfires were the single-worst threat faced by U.S. carriers. Reportedly the Chinese have been trying to acquire these aircraft since 1998.

J-15 Flying Shark Liaoning

A People’s Liberation Army Navy J-15 Flying Shark traps aboard the carrier Liaoning. Xinhua photo

The carrier is the most spectacular part of a long-running modernization and expansion of the PLAN (the People’s Liberation Army Navy). Reportedly, outgoing Chinese leader Hu Jintao favored navy and air force modernization over army modernization, presumably as part of a turn toward the sea (the air force would support offshore operations). This year’s crop of new ship types includes a new destroyer (Project 052C) with more vertical launchers (of a new type, suitable for hot and cold launches), and two helicopters rather than one, as well as a new corvette (Type 056). The great question is whether the carrier and the big missile destroyers indicate a shift away from the earlier coastal emphasis and toward a blue-water posture. Some Chinese naval officers have written that the country should adopt a blue-water posture because the most vital naval task is not coast defense, but rather the defense of Chinese sources of raw materials and energy, on which the country’s prosperity depends. The subtext is that the Chinese Communist Party often justifies its continued dictatorship on the basis that it ensures prosperity – a weirdly capitalist justification for communist power, but important all the same.

A blue-water Chinese navy can also be an expression of Chinese nationalism, another important Party theme.

This year Chinese and Japanese forces almost came to blows over the ownership of the tiny Senkaku Islands south of Japan. The islands are uninhabited, but they lie in an area of the South China Sea that China first claimed in 1947, before the current Communist regime took power. The area is generally believed to be mineral-rich, hence well worth disputing. It is known to be a rich fishery, and for years it has been assumed that there are huge undersea oil and gas reserves (as yet unproven, however).

The emergence of Type 056 might be read as part of the move toward blue water, although this ship is hardly likely to be part of a future Chinese carrier task force. Type 056 may have been conceived as a far less expensive alternative to the earlier Type 054 frigate, leaving more money for battle group types. The Chinese do continue to produce coastal missile boats, but Type 056 could also be seen as an offshore alternative to these craft, much as the German Braunschweig-class corvettes were conceived as blue-water alternatives to fast missile boats.

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Norman Friedman is an internationally known strategist and naval historian. He is the author of...