Crispin Burke and Courtney Messerschmidt: Shi Lang!

Posted on January 19, 2011


The rise of China and its implication on security in East Asia is conspicuously missing from the blog, but this guest post by Crispin Burke and Courtney Messerschmidt begins to correct this. It puts concerns about Chinese military technology into a more critical perspective, especially its new aircraft carrier. Crispin is a US Army captain and writes at Wings Over Iraq; Courtney is the infamous Great Satan’s Girlfriend.

The last few weeks sent tons of hot! deets, ala the not so peaceful looking ‘peaceful rise’ of rising regional puissance – sending delightful shivers of mind candy flung nigh unto every level of Great Satan’s diplopolititary endeavors.

The Chinese Tease (soundtrack/video here) – particularly her opaque military extends – have re ignited the re ignition on Defense bling, hot high hook up maintenance with tiny tiny Taiwan, battle plans – even grand strategy – all and more are off the hook!

While China’s recent military developments might be cause for alarm, none of China’s recent weapons systems are particularly ground-breaking. Rather, China is simply adopting technologies already developed in other nations, such as 5th-Generation fighters and aircraft carriers. Such adoption–or rather, attempts at adoption–is only a natural function of a rising military power.

Weaponry got tons of game and deserves some in depth attention and that means breaking out the defusing  defusion of Major Military Innovation (MMI) diffusion. In the essential The Diffusion of Military Power (Oh! It’s fully crunk) Michael C Horowitz examines the methodology in which military tech diffuse, or spread, among Puissants l’Grand.  In doing so, Dr H developed a number of theories to explain diffusion.

These MMI ‘theories’ should be defined before applied like ‘kini wax to a fun exam of China’s recent military developments.

Without further adieu they are:

Adoption-Capacity Theory: Once states have the necessary exposure to an innovation, the diffusion of military power is mostly governed by two factors:  level of financial intensity required to adopt a military innovation, and the amount of organizational capital required to adopt an innovation.

The level of financial investment correlates, generally, with how exclusively the innovation can be used for military purposes.  For example, while battlefleet warfare was generally an expensive technology, military manufacturers were more willing to invest in the technology, as such innovations–steel ships, radio communication, and mechanical engines–were also profitable in the private sector as well.  Thus, the major naval powers of the period were quick to adopt battle fleet warfare.

Organizational investment is somewhat more tricky to gauge, but Horowitz argues that young organizations, open to experimentation, and with a broad range of self-defined critical tasks are open to greater acceptance of major military innovations.  Both the US and Imperial Japanese navies were quick to adopt carrier warfare in the inter-war period.  Both organizations exhibited a young organizational age, relative to those of their counterparts, and thus, did not have the organizational entropy inherent in the major European navies.  This is particularly important in the case of carrier warfare, which drastically affects personnel policies; requiring new occupational specialties, training, and career paths.

Responses to a major military innovation can cone in three forms.  First, a state might adopt the new form of warfare, such as the widespread adoption of battle fleet warfare in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  Secondly, a state which lacks the capital (either financial or organizational) might ally itself with first-movers, such as the states within both NATO and the Warsaw Pact which allied themselves with the major nuclear powers.

Finally, a state might develop a countermeasure to the new innovationThe Soviet’s inability to successfully implement carrier warfare led to the development of anti-shipping missiles, designed to asymmetrically counter the advantage brought about by aircraft carriers.

Fittingly, Horowitz goes to great length to examine the development of carrier warfare, all the more relevant with China’s recent naval buildup.

Financial Capital Hypothesis: The greater the financial intensity required to implement the innovation, the slower the spread of the innovation at the system level, and the lower the probability that a state will attempt to adopt the innovation.

Organizational Capital Hypothesis: The greater the organizational capital required to implement the innovation, the slower the spread of the innovation at the system level, and the lower the probability that a state will attempt to adopt the innovation.

First-Mover Gains Hypothesis: First-movers (those who adopt the innovation first) should experience relative gains in power proportional to the length of their monopoly over the major military innovation and its relevance in international politics.  The length of the first-mover advantage will be inversely proportional to the diffusion rate of the innovation.

Late-Mover Gains Hypothesis: Late adopters   will face lower barriers to adoption due to more available information about the innovation, giving them a relative power edge over first and early movers once adoption occurs.

Military-Interaction Hypothesis: In general, this theory states that experience major military innovations will have more frequent, varied, and intense military interactions with a broader range of states than those that have not experienced an MMI.

Aircraft carriers

In 1998, China purchased the unfinished Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag after a complex bizarre bout of grand bargineering, undergoing a Herculean, yet risible effort to tow the vessel from Ukrainia to her home waters.  As of today, reports indicate the vessel is finally close to completion, some twelve years after her acquisition.

The Varyag’s aircraft compliment is less than that of American Nimitz-class carriers, with a maximum of 26 Su-33 Flankers, plus an additional 24 helicopters.  (Although multiple configs are possible, American Nimitz-class carriers typically put to sea with 48 F/A-18 Super Hornets, plus auxiliary aircraft ) It’s also worth noting that the Varyag was not designed as a “true” aircraft carrier, but rather, an aircraft-carrying cruiser, used to provide aerial cover for combat surface ships.

By contrast, the ultimate weapon in global power projection – currently numbering ten – act out as sovereign American turf anywhere on earth they happen to be, able to sortee nearly twice the aircraft compliment of the Varyag.  Power projection of an incredibly diverse and deadly array of desired behavior motivating airframes as well.  American F/A-18 Super Hornets–the backbone of American naval aviation–are aided by electronic warfare aircraft, tankers, airborne early warning, anti-submarine warfare, and search-and-rescue helicopters.

Moreover, though the Soviet Union (and later, the Russian Navy) poured billions of dollars into the Kuznetsov project, the prospect of successful carrier-based operations was still well beyond their reach.

No surprise. Unbridled inquiry unleashes unbound intelligentsia. The American Navy is a somewhat transparent organization, relatively open to discussion, debate, and experimentation. Those cool concepts are nigh non existent in Unfree  – or even the recently free nation states. Despotries suffer a deficit, traditionally keeping a tight, tight grip on regime threats like indie thinking and experimentation.

Soviet Navy was a completely different critter.  According to Horowitz, stifling bureaucracy, overbearing secrecy, and a dearth of independent thinking and experimentation hindered Soviet efforts to develop the necessary doctrine for naval aviation.

Soviet Union’s inability to finance and develop large-scale carrier warfare, particularly in the earlier days of the Cold War, led to investment in land-based bombers, equipped with sea-skimming anti-ship missiles.  Such devices served as a relatively inexpensive, asymmetrical counter to American naval power, though their impact was mitigated by defense-in-depth measures, such as the Aegis system.

And while China may be equipping its carrier with navalized Su-33 Flankers, American carriers will likely feature the new F-35B stealth fighter by the end of the decade.  Additionally, Great Satan’s carriers seldom operate by their lonesome; carrier warfare involves a myriad of consorting support vessels:  cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and auxiliary ships.  Recent concerns over the rise of China’s navy seldom mention these limitations.

Carrier warfare has been one of the most difficult battlefield innovations to adopt, as it requires immense investments in financial and organizational capital.   For example, USS Lexington, America’s first operational aircraft carrier, at $45 million, was more expensive than the top-of-the-line battleships of the day like Great Britain’s HMS Nelson at $36.4 million. And this doesn’t include cost of aircraft.

Carrier warfare also requires extensive financial investment due to the fact that the private sector has little incentive to develop the technologies inherent in this new form of warfare; there’s little  incentive to experiment and invest in the technologies inherent in carrier warfare.  While battlefleet warfare introduced naval technologies with both military and civil applications (e.g., radio communication, steel hulls, steam-driven engines and screw-type propellors), carrier warfare offers few such benefits.

The only customers for carrier technology are modern militaries. Most importantly, carrier warfare requires an extensive investment in organizational capital, requiring new military occupational specialties, and decades of training and experimentation.  The new form of warfare often faces fierce resistance from those who livelihoods might be threatened by decline of surface-based naval warfare.

Moreover, carrier warfare requires an extensive investment in organizational capital, requiring new military occupational specialties, and threatening the livelihoods of those who grew up during the age of the battleship.  It also takes years, if not decades, to fully master.

The Soviet Union, the world’s second most powerful military power, attempted, with little success, to sortee VSTOL aircraft carriers during the latter portion of the Cold War, she largely gave up on ferrying about tiny tiny combat jets with pitiful operational ranges.

Russia redirected her charm to creating the Admiral Kuznetsovy – the only Soviet era carrier magically deliscious enough to hang with conventional – heavier duty – warcraft. Her keel got laid in 1982 and it amazingly took her 13 years – half a decade after Cold War ended – til 1995 before she was finally hot enough to report for combat duty debut.

True hyper puissance au courant could easily take a decade or more of pain, heartache and deadly lessons for Peoples Liberation Navy to finally master the art of naval aviation.

The exorbitant financial cost of aircraft carriers, combined with the years–sometimes decades–of training inherent in mastering the craft means that this technology is concentrated in the hands of only a few.  Currently, Great Satan is the unrivaled master of carrier aviation– with ten nuclear powered ships in her arsenal, each capable of a compliment of up to eighty conventional fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft.

Only France, a NATO ally, is capable of fielding a carrier which might rival a Nimitz-class vessel.  Though Britain successfully employed carriers in the Falkland Islands War of 1982, she retired her Sea Harrier jump-jets last month, instead relying on French and American aircraft to equip her two remaining vessels.

Of the remaining countries which operate carriers, none operate more than one such ship, and few, save for Brazil’s São Paulo can handle conventional aircraft.

Even then, the Nimitz-class is by far the most impressive of carrier vessels.

Many countries have fielded carriers at one point or another, but have given up, based on the financial costs of operating such ships.  Canada, at one point, operated three carriers, and Australia has largely given up on its aspirations of naval aviation.  Instead, these countries fall under the “bandwagoning” theory, and have healthy alliances with the United States.

While the Chinese may adopt naval aviation as a new innovation, it may prove more effective to develop an effective counter-measure to American carriers.  Instead of spending decades and dollars perfecting the art of carrier warfare, the PLAN would likely find it more effective to counter America’s carrier advantage with its new Dong Feng (East wind in Sino Speak) DF-21 missile–an anti-ship ballistic missile.  The move wouldn’t be unprecedented, either.

After gawking at the financial and organizational difficulties in employing carrier warfare, the Soviets developed sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles as a cheap counter to America’s overwhelming superiority in naval aviation.  Thus, America may not benefit from more carriers, per se, as much as it might benefit from better early-warning and ballistic missile defense.

Chengdu J-20, The “Black Eagle”

Great Satan’s first stealth fighter, the F-117A Nighthawk, first flew in 1981.  Less-than-affectionately nicknamed the “Hopeless Diamond” (an allusion to her bizarre shape), and the “Wobblin’ Goblin” (for her instability in flight), the F-117A, uh, penetrated dense air defense networks in Panama in 1989 and Iraq in 1991.  Spawning a new generational posse of super-stealthy combat jets, such as the F-22 and F-35, only one F-117 was ever lost to enemy fire, during Operation Allied Force in 1999.

Still, it was only a matter of time before stealth tech made its way to China.  Russian engineers have already begun to develop a 5th-Generation fighter of their own, the PAK-FA.

China’s entry into the field was inevitable, and Chendu J20 still has some questionable attributes – like a semi stealth head on approach look while sporting decidedly unstealthy engine booty and Chengdu’s ambiguity to swing both ways as a fighter/bomber or bomber/fighter.

Concerns of avionics, weaponry and even stealth capabilities about China’s wunder waffe may also be taken in tandem with production abilities – not unlike Commonwealth Russia’s ability to unveil prototype after prototype of hot stuff that is fun to look at, yet  – alas –  with zero mass manufacturing ability to produce enough goodies to shift – let alone somersault – any power projection balances.