The journey of a thousand miles, etc…

Chinese Carrier Lacks Fighters


By David Axe

May 5, 2011

As noted by Douglas Paal here over the weekend, in recent weeks, the Chinese navy has taken big steps toward deploying its first aircraft carrier, underscoring the nation’s rapid ascent as a world power. Twelve years after Beijing purchased the incomplete Russian aircraft carrier Varyag, the 60,000-ton vessel — renamed Shi Lang— is reportedly on track to begin sea trials this summer. Shi Lang‘s first planes are nearly ready, too. In late April, the first J-15 fighter, an unlicensed copy of the Russian Su-33, appeared in navy colours.

A seaworthy vessel and operational naval fighters will provide the backbone of the Chinese navy’s evolving carrier force. But they are not, in themselves, adequate for a useful carrier force. Leaving aside the huge manpower, planning and logistical demands of a modern aircraft carrier, there are additional hardware needs that China hasn’t yet met.

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 Tengu says…

Over the last several years, there have been a number of stories about the imminent arrival of the Shi Lang – if indeed that is the name the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) eventually gives her – on the world’s oceans.  And, with tiresome predictability, many of my fellow United States Navy veterans scoff and jeer at the idea of a Chinese-operated aircraft carrier, gleefully predicting doomsday scenarios as the PLAN aviators master the difficult techniques necessary for taking off and landing on a ship at sea, as well as the thousands of other lessons that must be learned before a ship and crew mesh in harmony into a fully operational weapons system.

Surprisingly, one of the reasons for their ridicule is that it has taken the Chinese so long to get the Shi Lang out of port and onto the high seas, with the unspoken assumption being that they are not making a serious effort, and that even if she somehow does manage to sail, she will do so badly and be vexed with the same problems that have plagued her putative sister ship, the Russian Navy’s Admiral Kutnezsov.

If anyone reading this article harbors opinions like these, I suggest that it’s time to wake up and smell the jet exhaust.

The PLAN is serious.  They have money, they have national backing, they have patience, and what they can’t invent or buy, their spies have proven very capable of stealing.  In the nine years that have past since the ex-Varag arrived at the Dalian Naval Shipyard, the PLAN has been working slowly but steadily on rebuilding the vessel from the inside out.

Once commissioned, it’s going to be more of the same. I foresee very limited actual operational deployments for the ship initially, although there will be some. She is going to be a training ship and a test bed for equipment and doctrine, at least for the first couple years, but once they shake out the bugs, she will be a potent addition to the Chinese military presence inSoutheast Asia, theIndian Oceanand off the coast ofAfrica.

But that is just the beginning. Within the next three years, I expect to see the three to five hulls based roughly on the Shi Lang laid down, and those ships will be built much quicker. They will probably include some interesting ideas that we haven’t thought of, or didn’t consider workable.

For example, one of the limiting factors in the ski-jump configuration of the Shi Lang (as well as a number of other smaller carriers) is that it relies solely on aircraft engine power to launch aircraft, which limits takeoff weight and is unsuitable for anything but nimble fighter type aircraft. Accordingly, I foresee that in the follow-on ships, at least one steam or electromagnetic catapult will be installed, possibly two, to give them the ability to launch tankers and Airborne Early Warning and Command (AEW&C) aircraft.

In addition, I will go further out on the limb and say I expect the Chinese to experiment heavily with rocket assisted take-off (RATO) packs on the Shi Lang, both to boost in-flight endurance and to increase the amount of ordnance they can get into the air.

It’s interesting to note that, until the F/A-18, the USN scoffed at the strike fighter concept, even though the F-4 had proved that it was possible for an aircraft to do both fighter and attack roles as far back as the Vietnam era, but with the limited hanger and flight deck space available on the Shi Lang, it’s a certainty that is what they will adopt. And, while it remains to be seen if the J-15 is going to be sufficiently adaptable for that role, if can be adapted, it will be.

At the bottom line, I do not think that we should make any judgments about how good/bad the PLAN is going to be at carrier operations based on how bad the Russians have been. The Chinese are clever, industrious, hard working –and their shipyard workers and sailors are not addicted to vodka bottles.

They’re going to be a long time learning the ropes, but they WILL learn the ropes. You can take that to the bank.


About Tokyo Tengu

I'm a 58-year-old lovable fuzzball that enjoys spending time (when not working) reading and writing political commentary, enjoying good books, cooking, eating and bashing stupidity whenever and wherever I find it. (Not that I have to look very hard these days.) Despite being a long-term (25 years) resident of Tokyo, I am an unashamed and unabashedly Pro-Life American Conservative with an intense interest in the politics of the day -- in Japan, the United States and throughout Asia. My writings here and in other places focus primarily on how things are seen from Japan and around Asia, with special emphasis on Japanese national, political and defense issues, US Forces in Japan and Asia, and the burgeoning military power of China.
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