RogerBW's Blog

Chinese aircraft carriers 13 July 2014

The People's Liberation Army Naval Air Force has been making substantial, though largely ignored, efforts to gain a carrier aviation capability.

The PLAN-AF was founded in 1955, and its original job was to provide shore-based air cover to Chinese warships (doctrine suggested this rather than on-board surface-to-air missile capability). That started to change in the 1980s, particularly under Liu Huaqing, a proponent of naval modernisation and expansion on a par with Admiral Gorshkov in the 1960s-1970s.

Under Liu, the PLAN-AF began to develop a shipborne helicopter capability, for submarine hunting and anti-surface strikes. It also took its first steps towards a proper fixed-wing carrier, buying HMAS Melbourne as scrap in 1982; while the RAN stripped her of all electronic equipment and weapons, the steam catapult, arresting equipment and mirror landing system were not removed. It appears that Melbourne may not have been completely broken up until 2002, and unreliable reports indicate that the flight deck was removed and may have been used for land-based training.

In the 1990s, private individuals in China bought the helicopter/VTOL carriers Minsk and Kiev for use as a museum ship and a military theme park respectively. It can be assumed that members of the PLAN-AF studied those ships before their conversion.

Various other deals fell through, including an attempt to buy the French Clemenceau in 1997. But the Admiral Kuznetsov-class Riga, later Varyag, was sold by the Ukrainian government to the Chong Lot Travel Agency Ltd. in 1998; the plan was to turn her into a floating hotel off Macau, even though mooring rights and casino licences were not forthcoming. (It is perhaps worth noting that the chairman of Chin Luck (Holdings), which owns Chong Lot, is a retired PLA officer.) In 2005, the Varyag was moved to drydock and repairs and rehabilitation began. (Although the Ukrainian government had stipulated that there would be no military use, there wasn't much they could do about it.)

The newly-renamed Liaoning ("Distant Peace", but probably named for the Chinese province) completed sea trials in 2012 and has since embarked Shenyang J-15 aircraft (a fuselage copy of the Su-33 naval air defence fighter, itself a derivative of the Su-27, but fitted with Chinese-designed engines and avionics). The first carrier landings took place in November of that year. Liaoning is considered a "scientific research, experiment and training" ship and is not assigned to operational fleets. Pilots from the Brazilian Navy's Fleet Air Arm have been assisting the PLAN-AF with carrier training. Although there's arrestor gear, fixed-wing aircraft must make a ski-jump launch, as the Kuznetsov-class has no catapults.

Reports have indicated that one or two more, perhaps larger, aircraft carriers are to be built in China, but little has been heard of this since 2013. Staff at the Academy of Military Sciences have stated that they think China needs three carriers altogether (to match the predicted three each of India and Japan). If they are Liaoning-sized, one would expect at least a waist catapult to allow AEW aircraft to be operated; if larger, probably a more conventional bow plus waist catapult arrangement. Even propulsion is unclear, with foreign sources saying they don't think the Chinese have the capability of building a nuclear-powered ship. But they've been wrong before.

How much this is genitalia-waving at the Americans and at various local powers, and how much is intent to develop a genuine carrier strike capability, is of course unclear. The intensity of training would give a lot of clues. One might reasonably ask: against whom might the Chinese be planning to use this force? Most of the local powers could call for help from the US Navy and have a fair hope of getting it.

  1. Posted by John Dallman at 08:15pm on 14 July 2014

    The Chinese have far more experience of operating nuclear subs than the USN did when they built USS Enterprise (CVN-65). I really don't see any grounds for claiming they can't do it.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 06:45pm on 15 July 2014

    I'm inclined to agree, though unverified horror stories about Chinese nuc boats do seem to abound.

    My main question is: do they have the political will to commit and sustain a serious training budget like the RN and the USN, or are they going to have a nominal capability like the Indians or the Spanish, who can happily operate in peacetime and fine weather but don't have the flying hours to be sure they can stand up under tougher conditions?

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