Is China Becoming a Naval Aircraft Threat?

The Chinese navy confirmed last week that its aircraft carrier, Liaoning, has carried out its first ever battlegroup exercise in the South China Seas. As you’d expect, some of China’s neighbors are less than happy about this, but how big a problem is it really?

In short, Liaoning is a fairly impressive-looking ship, but it’s nowhere near as capable as a US carrier, and there are some major compromises built in. It isn’t actually a Chinese ship at all; it’s a Soviet-built Kuznetsov-class carrier, sister to the Admiral Kuznetsov that’s currently parked off Syria. This one was originally named Varyag, and was only about two-thirds complete when the USSR collapsed. The ship’s structure had been finished, and the engines were in place, but no electronics or other systems were installed. Work stopped in 1992, as the old Soviet Navy splintered, and for six years she rusted in a Ukrainian shipyard. Russia maintained her sister in an intermittently usable condition, but Ukraine couldn’t afford to run an aircraft carrier, nevermind finish building one.

Then, in 1998, the ship was sold to a Chinese entrepreneur who claimed he wanted to turn her into a floating casino. That’s not totally incredible; two older, smaller Soviet carriers – Kiev  and Minsk – are now moored in Chinese theme parks. It turned out to be a cover story, though. After delivery to China in late 2000 the ship was closely examined for several years, and then it was given an extensive refit and modernization. Chinese radars, electronics and defensive missile systems were fitted, and one of the most bizarre features of the Kuznetsov class – an array of heavy anti-ship missile silos concealed beneath hatches in the flight deck – was removed. That freed up more internal space for hangars and weapon storage.

The rebuilt ship started sea trials in mid-2011, and in September 2012, was commissioned as Liaoning. That doesn’t mean China has a real carrier capability, though. This is their first flat-top and they don’t have a lot of experience at operating her; she’s only been conducting flight operations for about three years. Russia has had Kuznetsov in commission for more than 20 years, and their carrier capability is, at best, marginal.

Compared to a US carrier, the ships themselves are also flawed. They don’t have catapults for launching aircraft, relying on ski jumps at the bow to get their jets into the air. This is simple, but there’s a massive penalty in terms of launch weight – which means restricted weapon and fuel loads. Ski jump carriers are universally considered hugely inferior to catapult-equipped ones, which is why there’s so much rage in the Royal Navy about the British government’s decision to cripple their two new, large carriers with this system. Liaoning can’t launch her aircraft – unlicensed copies of the very capable Su-33 FLANKER – with a full fuel load, and she also can’t launch tankers, AEW aircraft and all the other features of a US carrier air wing. That means her control bubble is a lot smaller than a Nimitz class carrier can impose.

So it’s worth paying attention to China’s carrier antics, but, until they have two or three more modern carriers and a decade of experience in operating them, it’s not something to worry too much about. Chinese naval aviation will be a credible threat one day, but not yet.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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