Tuesday, September 6, 2011

China's Aircraft Carrier and Occam's Razor

If you hear hooves....

A very simplistic definition of Occam's Razor is: "If you hear hooves, think horses, not zebras".

In other words if it looks like "A", smells like "A", tastes like "A", then your first assumption should be that it is "A".

It is commonly taught to young medical students who have the habit, apparently, of searching for the most obscure and exotic disease to match a set of complaints that normally are symptomatic of a common ailment.Of course, sometimes, albeit rarely, the hooves that are heard really are Zebras.

China's Striped Horse..

China has a ship. It looks like an aircraft carrier, it was designed and built to be an aircraft carrier and there is no reason that, according to Occam's Razor, we should reasonably think that it is anything but an aircraft carrier.

If you follow China, and, unless you have been incommunicado in the middle of the Taklamakan Desert for the last several years, you will know that China purchased the shell of an aircraft carrier from the Ukraine. She arrived in Dalian naval base in Liaoning Province, North Eastern China in 2002, was “fitted out” and, during August of this year, underwent her first sea trials

The press and commentators obviously have analysed this event from each and every possible angle. The effect on regional security, China's long term plans re expansion and regional hegemony. Diplomatic and military relations. There is not one aspect that has not fallen under the most acute and, seemingly, thorough analysis.

General consensus is that the Varyag, as it is currently known, is more show than threat. Analysts have rightly pointed out that it would take upwards of a generation for the PLA Navy to train personnel and develop military strategy and protocol for it to be anything other than what the Chinese claim it to be, a training ship.Only today quite coincidently the Australian newspaper carried a piece  China carrier no cause for regional alarm  which pretty well sums up the current thinking.

But obviously subscribing to the Occam's Razor no analyst that I have come across even appears to have fleetingly thought "zebras" let alone explored the possibility.

I believe there is a very good chance that Occam's Razor has blinded us to the very real possibility that this ship was never intended to be an aircraft carrier. To mix metaphors, maybe we are not seeing the wood for the trees!

China's Naval Limitations

What does Chinese military projection lack? Quite simply, it lacks the ability and means to get soldiers from China to a hot spot. China is severely lacking in the capability of amphibious transport of it's soldiers and war machinery.

Taipei, Taiwan, for example, is 252 km from Fuzhou, Fujian Province, but, according to a recently released Defence White Paper from Taiwan, China would only be capable of taking offshore islands in the event of a military engagement and does not have the capacity to take Taipei and mainland Taiwan using land forces. Many analysts agree with the conclusions of Taiwan’s military. If that be the case and we look at  Manila (1,289 Ks), Tokyo (2,216 Ks), Seoul (1,469 Ks) and Hanoi (by sea 2,200 Ks roughly)  China poses no land based threat to any of these capitals. 

As Mao said "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" but you have got to get the gun there in the first place. China currently can not do that and this severely limits it's military power projection and therefore it's diplomatic clout.

So, one would think that a strategic military planner, thinking short to medium term,  would conclude that gaining amphibious capabilities in troop transport would be a far more desirable and beneficial objective for China's Military than waiting a generation for effective naval air power.

A Little History....

Perhaps a little naval history to set some background for where this is leading to. 

At the end of WW2, and even before it's end, aircraft carriers owned by the Allies greatly outnumbered their post war need. I will focus on two carriers built in WW2; one HMS Puncher, was a purpose built 'disposable" and, the other was to be later named, HMAS Sydney. Both have significant relevance.

HMS Puncher was classified as a tactical support aircraft carrier, a disposable vessel built to see the war through as a light support carrier providing limited air cover capability to help protect vital convoy shipping. 

Sydney was built as a mainstream medium sized carrier and it eventually went on to become Australia's flagship.

As WW2 was winding down Puncher was converted to a troop carrier to ferry home victorious “Dominion” troops to Canada. Once that role was over she was decommissioned and scrapped.

HMAS Sydney, after a period of being Australia's flagship, also went on to be converted as a troop carrier seeing action first in that role during the Indonesian- Malaysian Confrontation of 1963 and later achieving  considerable utility as the so nicknamed “Vung Tao Ferry”, transporting Australian servicemen and equipment to and from Vung Tao during the Vietnam war.

What we see then is, to my knowledge, the only instances of aircraft carriers being converted to troop carriers.

Lets look at some comparative statistics between the three aircraft carriers so far mentioned, Puncher, Sydney and Varyag.

 Displacement (Tons)
 Length (Ft)
 Beam (Ft)
Dead Weight Cargo (Tons)

The first thing that is noticeable is the size differential between the three ships. Varyag is over three times bigger than Sydney and four times bigger than Puncher in terms of displacement.

Puncher's troop capacity was the average troop numbers it carried on its several trips from England to Halifax, Canada. Sydney's troop capacity figure is it's average over 25 trips to Vietnam. Normally Sydney only had to accommodate one regiment and equipment and the men were very comfortably accommodated so, unlike Puncher, it's true capacity was never fully tested.

I was actually in the naval reserve in the early seventies and served a two week training programme on Sydney at dock prior to her being "paid off". There was one hundred of us quartered in the aircraft hold comfortably sleeping in single cot beds and, if my memory serves me, in that configuration we could have easily fitted an extra 600 hundred plus in that area alone. For a short haul with no beds required the hold could have fit, I would hazard a guess, 3000. Sydney's largest actual troop carry was in 1962 when it shipped 1,245 troop with full kit, vehicles, stores, equipment and  500+  crew from Sydney to Malaysia.

You will see, no doubt, where this is leading to. If Varyag, being tree times bigger than Sydney, was used as a troop transport for short haul with no aircraft on board and limited crewing and sparse internal fit-out,  what could we be talking about in terms of potential troop carrying capacity? I am no expert but I would hazard a guess at between 10 and 20,000. (The Queen Mary 2, a luxury cruise ship of about the same linear dimensions as Varyag but considerably more "decked" out, very comfortably accommodates 4,289 passengers and crew. The original Queen Mary, again of similar size to Varyag, was stripped out during WW2 and converted to a troop carrier with a 15,000 troop capacity)

History tells us that using converted aircraft carries as troop transports has been done before and, coincidentally, Varyag was supposedly purchased to be converted into a floating hotel.....

Occam’s Razor...

Have we in the west, then, seen what we wanted to see? 

And seen it we have! China has made it so visible and “transparent” we have all but lost interest in it, written it off as a Middle Kingdom foible, safe in the knowledge that the US Pacific Feet would send it and it's air capacity to Davy Jones' Locker before they have coffee and do-nuts for breakfast. But that scenario is with Varyag being an aircraft carrier that requires an extensive entourage, but a troop ship could load and be on it's way within 24hrs (as Sydney was able to do in Vietnam) before anyone even noticed.

The Varyag for all intents and purposes was bought as a shell and who is to say that it is still not virtually a shell today maximising available space. 

Have we seen the symptoms and diagnosed the illness with Occam’s Razor logic? 

Zebra's have hooves too! And the hooves I hear are zebra's. 

And I will leave you with one last thing to ponder. Why would the Chinese have painted the flight deck with non-slip paint?