Carrier Wars: Who’s Crazier — U.S. Imperiling National Security by Shrinking to Nine Carrier Strike Groups, or China for Selecting Nine Captains for its One Used Russian Flattop?

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The Chinese carrier Varyag / Wiki 

The USS George Washington / Wiki

These are strange times in carrier-land. The U.S. is struggling to hold on to what it has, while the Chinese are struggling to get some of those floating acres of sovereignty for their very own. It’s generating some interesting eddies that are likely to generate profound currents for control of the world’s sea lanes in the 21st Century.

And sometimes it’s kind of funny. When you pay too much attention to the Pentagon, you can miss the howlers coming from the State Department. Wednesday, for example, a reporter asked spokeswoman Victoria Nuland if the U.S. government were concerned over the maneuvers being sailed by the Varyag, China’s sole, second-hand, unfinished, as-yet-officially-unnamed aircraft carrier. Her response:

“We would welcome any kind of explanation that China would like to give for needing this kind of equipment.”

That’s a striking statement coming from a nation that sends its fleet of 11 super-carriers all over the world. The 100,000-ton USS George Washington (nearly twice the displacement of the Varyag) has spent the past several days docked at Laem Chabang, Thailand, for example — within F-18 Super Hornet range of China. The carrier says its “mission is to ensure security and stability in the 7th Fleet AOR and to be in position to work with our allies and regional partners to respond to any crisis across the operational spectrum as directed.”

Captain David Lausman says his 5,500 sailors deserve the break. “I fully expect to see them out in full force shopping, enjoying Thai food and taking tours,” he says. Information Systems Technician 1st Class Bobby Anderson, from Houston agrees with the CO: “There are elephants to ride, tigers to see, temples to visit and a really cool zip line in the middle of the forest to go on.” But they’ll also help with “the beautification of local schools, temples and pay visits to elderly residents at an area nursing home,” the Navy says, as well as show off the carrier to “children from a local orphanage and government leaders.”

So why does China need a carrier? “The truth is that the development of China’s navy, including the acquiring of the aircraft carrier, is aimed at defending the country’s sovereignty and maritime interests and maintaining regional and world peace and stability,” writes Wang Xiaoxuan, a senior captain and director of Naval Research Institute of the People’s Liberation Army, in Thursday’s China Daily newspaper. “Among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and emerging powers such as Brazil, China is the last to commission an aircraft carrier.”

Plainly, we don’t have to buy Captain Wang’s logic, but we might want to consider leasing it. The U.S. ignores it at its peril. The U.S. has used — and brandished — carriers for more than half-a-century to influence global events, and there is no denying the merit in China’s desire to be able to do the same, especially in its own neighborhood.

Meanwhile, back home, the U.S. Navy is planning to cut the number of fighter groups earmarked for its carriers — the reason for their existence — from 10 to nine. While it has 11 carriers, one or two are always undergoing repair. It’s just another example of the screws tightening on the Navy’s budget. So is the latest estimate that the cost of the carrier USS Gerald Ford now under construction — the most costly warship in the history of the world, at $12 billion (planes not included) — is running 11% over budget.

Of course, the whole notion of a carrier-centric U.S. Navy has been called into question by the Chinese military’s recent development of its DF-21 ship-killing missile. If perfected, it could keep U.S. carriers so far away from the Chinese coast that they couldn’t come to the aid of Taiwan if it were attacked by the mainland.

But not to worry: Taiwan has just revealed its own ship-killing missile:

In a blunt departure from tradition, the military yesterday displayed a model Hsiung Feng (“Brave Wind”) III (HF-3) anti-ship missile with, as a backdrop, a large picture of a burning aircraft carrier that bore a striking resemblance to China’s retrofitted Varyag, which embarked on its maiden voyage earlier in the day.

Back in Beijing, the Chinese military has announced that command of its first aircraft carrier will rotate among nine Chinese captains (kind of gives the phrase Chinese fire drill a new currency). After the carrier completes its sea trials, the Chinese military expects to give the ship an official Chinese name (Varyag is its Russian moniker, named for a cruiser, which in turn was named for the 10th Century Viking-like marauders from the Baltic region). A sentimental favorite is said to be Shi Lang, an admiral in the Qing Dynasty, who conquered the Kingdom of Tungning — aka Taiwan — in 1861. Another leading contender is Mao Zedong, the founder of communist China. Either choice is bound to set off plenty of non-Chinese fireworks.