The Liaoning: A projection of Chinese naval power

By J Brooks Spector 27 November 2012

Just a few months ago the world learned China had sent its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, out for its initial sea trials. When the Liaoning set off, naval experts said it might be a while before the Chinese navy was really ready to practice jet launchings, let alone landings, on this new flattop. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Well, surprise, surprise. On Sunday, Xinhua, China’s official news agency, announced that a J-15 fighter jet had successfully landed on the deck of the country’s first aircraft carrier, after first having taken off from the ship. Once the successful test flight had taken place, China Central Television proudly showed video footage of both the landing and the take off. Coincidentally, China’s state media also had to announce the death of the chief designer of the J-15, Luo Yang, just after he had watched the first-ever landing of his prize creation onto the newly launched Chinese aircraft carrier. 

According to The New York Times and other sources, this Chinese designed and manufactured J-15 is China’s first-generation multipurpose carrier-borne fighter jet, and one that can be equipped with “anti-ship air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles as well as precision-guided bombs”. The J-15 is roughly comparable to the Russian Su-33 or the American F-18, said Xinhua. Until this successful test flight, Chinese fighter pilots had been confined to carrying out simulated carrier landings on land-based runways. But carrier-based pilots will tell you that doing the deed out on the ocean is a very different thing indeed. For starters, the land doesn’t rise and fall with the swells of the ocean. For another, there aren’t too many visual landmarks a pilot can use when radar fails to guide a pilot home. 

Safely recovering a plane onto a carrier is the big deal, of course. Launching a plane is the easy part. To launch, the plane is locked onto the steam catapult, the air pressure is built up correctly in the steam catapult, the pilot revs up the plane’s engines, and after that it is basically a matter of letting physics do the rest. Landing back on the carrier, however, is the hard part. There is the lining up of the plane’s approach path, coming in at not too high an angle or not too low of one; then coming in not too fast, not too slow, hooking properly onto the retarding line – and pretty much all of this at the same time. The only standard flight activity, short of wartime landings under fire, that is harder than landing on a carrier is doing so at night.

From now on, however, the Chinese will begin with serious drills with their new toys – accent on the plural – in which everything must work and play well together. A carrier, after all, is of little use if it only has one plane making use of its capabilities. Accordingly, the key is to manage it so that whole squadrons of fighter jets and their pilots as well as the deck crews must be able to do the task, and all with split-second timing. Nevertheless, Xinhua went on to explain that their shiny new carrier had been undergoing “sailing and technological tests” since the end of September and had already carried out more than 100 training and testing exercises before the launch and recovery exercise just announced. 

The Liaoning’s profile shows off a distinctive cantilevered deck designed to improve take-off capabilities. It was reconstructed out of the near derelict, unfinished Soviet carrier, the Varyag, which was still under construction as the Soviet Union collapsed. The Chinese actually purchased the Varyag from the Ukraine after that nation had inherited the ship from the old Soviet navy, but was never able to make real use of it. When China first purchased the ship, the rumours about its ultimate purpose included the idea it would become a floating casino and hotel, or maybe a fancy apartment building moored at the quayside of one of China’s big ports – or, less likely, perhaps even an aircraft carrier. At the time, that latter choice seemed something of a stretch for many.

Analysts say the carrier will not actually be combat-ready for some time yet. Moreover, experts also argue Chinese combined aviation/ship tactics and the major budget needed to support such ambitions will continue to lag far behind US commitments on that score. The US is still the main military power in the western reaches of the Pacific Ocean. 

BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus explained that despite this Chinese naval success, “Considerably more training will be needed to create a cadre of air-crew and technicians to keep its carrier-borne jets flying in a variety of sea conditions. China will also have to create the operational practices and procedures, not just to establish a carrier air-wing made up of a variety of specialised aircraft but it will also have to develop the ability to operate its carrier alongside other vessels in a dedicated battle group.” 

However, given this leap forward, western experts now also believe the Chinese navy is undergoing a substantial modernisation more quickly than the other branches of the Chinese military establishment. When fully kitted out, the Liaoning may be able to host as many as 50 jets, plus helicopters. Accordingly, it seems almost certain that the Chinese have determined that their naval forces will be the key for force projection over the coming decades – and that the main locus of operations will be the Pacific. In that case, their chief potential adversary is the US naval establishment. China’s navy still has a way to go in the carrier department, of course. The US has 11 of these ocean-going force projection giants operating in all major theatres. The UK, India, Brazil, Thailand, Spain, Russia and France have one each and Italy has two for some reason. Nevertheless, the Liaoning is a big ship. It is only about 30m shorter than a Nimitz class US carrier and it is significantly larger than any of the other carriers operated by any other nation with a carrier component to their naval forces.  

This successful take-off and landing from a Chinese aircraft carrier comes as the US continues its “pivot” towards East Asia – and away from its decade-long entanglement in Afghanistan – especially after it has extricated itself from the fruitless military operation in Iraq. By contrast, the East Asian region contains the world’s second and third largest economies; there are a range of stubborn, still-unresolved territorial disputes including squabbles over various small island groups in the South China Sea, islets between Korea and Japan, Japan and China; major, as-yet-untapped sea-based resources such as fishing grounds and oil and natural gas fields; and, of course, the demilitarised zone ceasefire line between North and South Korea that marks a division between two bitter enemies and remains a flashpoint after more than a half century after the Korean War. 

In the past several years, most of China’s neighbours or nations near to it have indicated a growing unease about that country’s more far-reaching intentions. Disputes over some of the small island groups such as the one about the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands have sometimes taken on acrimonious textures including violent demonstrations in Beijing against commercial Japanese interests. Any tension like this becomes a particularly difficult problem, given the thoroughly interconnected nature between economic powerhouses like Korea, Taiwan and Japan with China. 

In the meantime, the American “pivot” towards East Asia and the reassertion of US interests in the region in terms of investment, trade and international security and stability have pricked Chinese attention as well. The most recent Asian trip by Barack Obama included an unprecedented stop in Myanmar/Burma, highlighting that country’s shift toward more democratic rule. Burma had long been a virtual economic satrapy of China during its decades-long rule by a durable military dictatorship. As a result, Obama’s highly publicised visit there certainly gained Chinese attention about and contemplation of the ultimate intentions of the US in China’s “backyard” – as well as its “front yard”. 

A historian might even choose to label this moment as the true beginning of China’s Wilhelmine period, as it, like pre-World War I imperial Germany, reaches out to stake out a true, fair, appropriate place in the sun – and as it keeps a close eye on America’s intentions and actions. Besides the Liaoning, there are also reports China is working on several more carriers in shipyards in the Shanghai area. Experts note that a navy generally needs three carriers to maintain a constant sea-based presence. 

Given China’s history, not surprisingly, the threat of a conflict in the close-in Taiwan Strait has long been at the core of the rationale for the Chinese navy’s modernisation. The possibilities of conflict there still seem to have a central place in Chinese military strategic doctrine and planning. But publicly at least, both China and the US continue to foreswear any overt interest in a military competition in the Pacific, let alone active hostilities. 

Instead, both nations point to their deep, broad trade and investment relations, connections that make them key reciprocal trading partners. Nevertheless, the Chinese are also mindful of the potential impact of corrupting western ideas – generally identified with the US and its companies, institutions and values – on the stability of the ruling party’s leadership and control of the country. Concurrently, numerous American politicians and policy analysts like to take note of the increasingly large holdings of American sovereign debt by Chinese financial institutions – and the possibility this debt holding might be used as a leverage point against American force projection – if it should ever come to that. 

The next four years may well become crucial to the creation of a new style of relationship between the US and China. Fortunately, America and China will not have to contend with the ideas of a president like Mitt Romney, who seemed itching for the chance to take a poke at China over its currency exchange rates. That might have led to the kind of snit fight that could easily have broadened into a much larger tit-for-tat trade conflict between the world’s number one and two economies. 

Obama, of course, recently re-elected president, spent many of his formative years in Indonesia and Hawaii, and likes to call himself the country’s first Pacific president. Xi Jinping, meanwhile, is halfway to taking hold of all the reins of power in both the Chinese Communist Party and the state, a process to be concluded in March 2013. Xi had his own formative experience across the Pacific, getting a close look at American agricultural production while he was a young provincial administrator. Together, perhaps, they may be able to use their shared four years to build a more solid political relationship. They should certainly try. DM

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Photo: China’s first aircraft carrier, which was renovated from an old aircraft carrier that China bought from Ukraine in 1998, is seen docked at Dalian Port, in Dalian, Liaoning province September 22, 2012. Picture taken September 22, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer 


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