Do Chinese carriers only play theatrical role?

Shandong aircraft carrier fleet’s first Western Pacific drills effectively refute such smears.

By Deng Xiaoci  and Guo Yuandan

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy on Saturday released videos and pictures of just-concluded combat readiness drills of the Shandong aircraft carrier fleet, saying that the fleet entered the Western Pacific for the first time in a systematic and large-scale manner, which according to Chinese experts, effectively refuted the Western media’s smears that Chinese aircraft carriers only “play a theatrical role but pose little threat.”

The fleet of PLA Navy Shandong aircraft carrier has recently returned to their home port, after concluding combat readiness drills in the Western Pacific, according to the PLA Navy official WeChat official account on Saturday.

During the drills, the Shandong aircraft carrier fleet entered the Western Pacific for the first time in a systematic and large-scale manner. The PLA Navy said that faced with the complex situation of foreign warships and planes taking turns to conduct reconnaissance, the fleet quickly and accurately grasped the situation, efficiently controlled the actions of troops, and always responded positively and handled things safely, effectively improving its actual combat capabilities.

These important real-world combat-like drills responded to the enemy’s provocations, Song Zhongping military expert and TV commentator, told the Global Times on Saturday.

Song said that the official release indicates that the aircraft carrier will play its due role in the military actions in the Taiwan Straits. And besides combat and supply capabilities, Chinese aircraft carriers have also formed joint combat capabilities with other PLA forces, Song noted.

Reuters on Friday said that it could be more than a decade before China would be able to mount a credible carrier threat far from its shores, citing four military attaches and six defence analysts familiar with regional naval deployments.

A military expert who requested not to be named told the Global Times that the recent drills conducted by the Shandong aircraft carrier fleet, based on the official release, demonstrate its joint combat capability with PLA forces including air forces as well as underwater forces, showing that Shandong’s first far sea manoeuvres started from a strong position.

Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force spotted a PLA Navy flotilla consisting of the aircraft carrier Shandong, a Type 055 large destroyer, two Type 052D destroyers, two Type 054A frigates and a Type 901 comprehensive replenishment ship as they sailed from the Western Pacific to the South China Sea via the Bashi Channel, according to a press release from Japan’s Ministry of Defense Joint Staff published on its website in late April.

Referencing interactions with foreign warships and planes in the official release also showed that there were provocative moves during the drills and Shandong’s practice has not been affected, but instead, included them in the training subject, elevating real combat skills, Song noted.

Experts quoted in the Reuters report contended that in a conflict, China’s carriers would be vulnerable to missile and submarine attacks, noting that the People’s Liberation Army Navy has not perfected protective screening operations, particularly anti-submarine warfare.

Responding to that, Song said that admittedly, it would be a process for Chinese aircraft carriers to establish and hone their protective screening operations, and frequent drills in a variety of sea areas prove that China was rapidly developing such capabilities.

Also, as the situations surrounding China continue to deteriorate, China has the need to strive to speed up the enhancement of its aircraft carrier fleets’ combat capabilities within a decade or two which would take other countries decades or a century.

From the commissioning in December 2019 to the first far sea training in the Western Pacific in April, it took Shandong more than two years, the same process took the US many years, Song said.

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