China is now officially an aircraft carrier-operating navy with the commissioning of Liaoning on 25 Sept 2012. Though much has been written, I direct you to Andrew Erickson’s column in the Wall Street Journal, “Introducing the ‘Liaoning’: China’s New Aircraft Carrier and What it Means.”
Andrew (and many others) point out that the Chinese have yet to meet a major milestone; landing aircraft on the deck. Just one day after being commissioned, photos appeared on the ‘net that may indicate that landings have already happened (see “Who left skidmarks on the flight deck of China’s new aircraft carrier?“)
But does China really need an aircraft carrier? Yet elsewhere in Foreign Policy is an argument entitled “Shipping Out: Are Aircraft Carriers Becoming Obsolete?“ I will be the first to say that the arguments put forth are very simple and the author shows little real understanding of naval matters; not to mention apparent ignorance of anti-ship ballistic missiles. For a far better analysis of the Chinese naval threat I recommend the latest edition of Ronald O’Rourke’s Congressional Research Service report China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress. On the issues of China’s aircraft carriers, the report points out:
Although aircraft carriers might have some value for China in Taiwan-related conflict scenarios, they are not considered critical for Chinese operations in such scenarios, because Taiwan is within range of land-based Chinese aircraft. Consequently, most observers believe that China is acquiring carriers primarily for their value in other kinds of operations that are more distant from China’s shores, and to symbolize China’s status as a major world power. DOD states that “Given the fact that Taiwan can be reached by land-based aviation, China’s aircraft carrier program would offer very limited value in a Taiwan scenario and would require additional naval resources for protection. However, it would enable China to extend its naval air capabilities elsewhere.” (p. 20-21)
Regardless of the threat, it will be fun to play out a wargame scenario using Liaoning. Indeed, the Oct 2011 issue of The Naval SITREP from Clash of Arms featured a Harpoon scenario “The Wisdom of Shi Lang” (Shi Lang being what the west originally thought the carrier would be named).