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Alexander Yermakov

Military analyst, RAC expert

In the previous part we briefly discussed the history of China’s aircraft carrier programme. However, carriers are only half the story: they are nothing without aviation. China’s carrier-based aviation is the youngest in the world, but it is developing rapidly and has demonstrated substantial progress.

The prototype of the Chinese carrier-based fighter — the Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark — first flew on August 31, 2009. The overall combat potential of the J-15 is comparable to that of the Shenyang J-11B, the Chinese version of the Russian land-based Su-27, with Chinese avionics and weaponry.

Another important defensive component of a carrier force is airborne early warning (AEW) capability. China attempts to rely on its own strength in this respect: it has developed an AEW derivative of the locally produced Changhe Z-8, a modernized clone of the French Aerospatiale SA 321 Super Frelon helicopter.

So why is China spending hefty sums on building its own aircraft carrying fleet?

With carrier-based aviation, China would feel more at ease in the Pacific, and would be able to shift the hypothetical line of confrontation away from its coast.

Carriers are a powerful instrument for projecting global military and political force. It is true that China has never been keen on intervening in conflicts far from its national borders, but there must be a reason why the Chinese Navy is setting up a supply base in Djibouti.

The Chinese submarines would feel safer in the South China Sea, which is deeper and lies farther away from Japan, South Korea and Guam. In this case, however, they would require greater anti-aircraft and anti-submarine protection, because they would be farther away from home.


The Chinese made their carrier-based fighter choice back in 1991 it was largely in China’s interests that abreast-seating configuration of the Su-33UB, which is unusual for fighter jets, was eventually implemented.
Alexey Biryuk / vk.com/wall-85287128_1469
Russian MiG-29K, Adm. Kuznetsov aircraft carrier
The prototype of the Chinese carrier-based fighter — the Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark — first flew on August 31, 2009.

Sharks from the Black Sea

The history of China’s carrier-based aviation — and of its carrier programme in general — is largely based on developments made in the USSR shortly before its collapse. The first four Soviet Project 1143 aircraft carriers (formally described as aircraft carrying cruisers), which were discussed in greater detail in the first part of this article, were intended for carrying vertical/short take-off and vertical landing (V/STOVL) aircraft. The Soviet engineers proceeded from the premise that U.S. aircraft carriers had qualitatively greater potential in terms of aviation. The only worthy rivals of the U.S. Grumman F-14 Tomcats and McDonnell Douglas F/A 18 Hornets were the MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27s.

Ground-based fighters are rarely allocated to the navy (there are many more examples of the reverse process taking place). The flight decks of carriers are too short for conventional fighter jets to take offs. This is where the catapult — the universal method of increasing an aircraft’s take-off speed — comes in. Steam-operated catapults have been widely used since the early 1950s. To stop an aircraft on the flight deck after landing, arresting cables are used. These are stretched across the deck to be caught by the aeroplane’s tail hook. The USSR did attempt to develop catapult designs, but its lack of experience in the field, and the radical changes that the introduction of this technology would imply for the carrier project, meant that the decision was made to build two interim Short Take-Off but Arrested Recovery (STOBAR)-capable ships, with arresting cables and ski jumps. These two carriers, which later proved to be the last Soviet-built aircraft-capable ships, are now known as the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and China’s only aircraft carrier to date, the Liaoning. The USSR upgraded its Sukhoi Su-27K and MiG-29K fighters to be able to operate from the carrier deck. The first Su-33 deck landing was performed on November 1, 1989. A small batch of Su-33s was built in the 1990s. It was not until 2012 that carrier-based MiGs were commissioned; the resultant aircraft were miles ahead of the 1980 prototype originally designed for India. Procuring 24 MiG-29 would supply the Admiral Kuznetsov with a balanced air component: the Su-33s are primarily used in an anti-aircraft role, so they do not carry guided air-to-surface munitions, whereas the MiG-29K/KUB fighter can carry a broad range of weaponry. The Russian MiG-29K/KUB fighters commenced deck operations from the Admiral Kuznetsov in August 2016, and debuted during the carrier’s voyage to the Syrian coast.

chinadaily.com.cn
J-15 designer Luo Yang died on the day that the J-15 fighter jet completed its first successful landing on the Liaoning
Work to expand the array of J-15 weapons will continue in the years to come.

The Chinese made their carrier-based fighter choice back in 1991, though they may not have realized it at the time. The choice was made based on the results of Su-27 and MiG-29 demonstration flights. China went for the Su-27. In light of Beijing's previous orders for Su-27 family fighters, Russia approached the client’s commitment to a naval version of the aircraft with great seriousness: it was largely in China’s interests that abreast-seating configuration of the Su-33UB, which is unusual for fighter jets, was eventually implemented.

In 2004, China chose not to renew its licence to assemble Sukhoi fighters domestically using components from Russia and instead started work to reverse-engineer the model and produce clones with locally designed avionics, engines and weaponry. Had Beijing chosen to prolong its licence, Russia would continue to supply these components. China decided to put the carrier-based fighters into service without any preliminary procedures, even though it had procured a sample for reverse-engineering purposes: around 2001, it purchased one of Ukraine’s remaining Soviet-made Su-33 prototypes. There can be no doubt that Chinese engineers used the aircraft to look at what changes had been made to the airframe as part of the programme to turn the jets over to the navy, including the folding wing and vertical stabilizer, the reinforced landing gear, the tail hook, the canard surfaces, etc. Strangely, the Chinese variant’s canard shape differs somewhat from the original, meaning that the country took the shifted centre of gravity into account rather than just cloning the original aircraft. The Chinese side hardly took any interest in the avionics of the Soviet-built, both because they were dealing with an early prototype and because China had by that time obviously outstripped the Soviets in terms of technological development.

The prototype of the Chinese carrier-based fighter — the Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark — first flew on August 31, 2009. Carrier trials began in 2012. Following numerous touch-and-go runs on the flight deck, on the J-15 performed its first arrested landing on the Liaoning on November 25, 2012. Several more pilots landed on the carrier on the same day, and also performed their first take-offs.

The Future

t.people.com.cn/planavy
J-15 and Z-8 helicopter on Liaoning
One of the most important issues that has to be addressed in order to ensure the effective operation of modern combat aircraft is air-to-air refuelling capability.

Since that time, the Liaoning has regularly taken to sea with its aviation component on board for flying training purposes. Based on the photographs available to date, experts have identified at least 23 J-15 single-seaters by their tactical numbers. Production of these aircraft continues. Two 12-ship squadrons would be enough to form the core of the Project 1143.5/6 carrier’s aviation component: the ship also needs to carry helicopters for a number of auxiliary roles.

In late 2016, Chinese TV showed J-15s launching modern YJ-83K anti-ship missiles. We may conclude that the overall combat potential of the J-15 is comparable to that of the Shenyang J-11B, the Chinese version of the Russian land-based Su-27, with Chinese avionics and weaponry. Work to expand the array of J-15 weapons will continue in the years to come. Like its land-based brethren, the aircraft will likely receive air-to-ground guided munitions and will be able to destroy enemy air defences. This will allow the carrier’s air component to perform missions that are characteristic of modern combat aviation. However, achieving this status will require several additional “instruments.”

One of the most important issues that has to be addressed in order to ensure the effective operation of modern combat aircraft is air-to-air refuelling capability. As the range and endurance of contemporary aircraft continues to grow, so too do the requirements for these parameters. A combat sortie may last for as long as eight to twelve hours, and is restricted by the pilot’s physical ability rather than the aircraft’s performance. China has embraced the experience of the United States and Russia in developing a buddy refuelling system, in which one J-15 can transfer fuel to another in flight. Refuelling tanks have been test-flown, including from the carrier deck, so it is only a matter of time before Chinese naval pilots master the refuelling technique.

weibo.com/u/1720426401
J-15S Prototype
Refuelling tanks have been test-flown, including from the carrier deck, so it is only a matter of time before Chinese naval pilots master the refuelling technique.

Another important task is aerial electronic warfare (EW) support for carrier-based aircraft. It is true that fighters can be fitted with integrated or podded electronic countermeasures for individual or even group protection, but the capabilities of such equipment are inferior to those of specialized EW aircraft operated by trained personnel. At present, only the U.S. Navy has carrier-based EW aircraft: the Boeing EA-18 Growler is a derivative of the twin-seat version of the F/A-18F Super Hornet carrier-based fighter. Overall, twin-seaters are just as useful in carrier operations as they are in land-based aviation: they can be used for training purposes and for long-range missions. China understands the usefulness of carrier-based twin-seaters, as demonstrated by the fact that a prototype of the twin-seat J-15S was first spotted on a photograph back in 2013. However, it would seem that this prototype has not yet operated from the Loaoning deck. In addition, people keep confusing the hypothetical J-15S-based EW variant (which no one has seen) with the EW modification of the J-16, the Chinese clone of the Su-30, which is definitely being developed and has been photographed on many occasions. For training purposes, including basic training of new naval pilots, China is developing a carrier-based version of the Guizhou JL-9 aircraft, designated JL-9G. The prototype of this aircraft has already performed test flights from the ski jump of a ground-based test facility, but it remains unclear when it will land on a real carrier deck for the first time. Another important defensive component of a carrier force is airborne early warning (AEW) capability. Apart from being able to deliver a powerful radar to a potentially threatening area, an AEW platform is the only way to detect low-altitude targets in advance. The U.S. carriers have Northrop Grumman E-2C/D Hawkeye for the purpose. In addition to the United States, the only other country that can afford the “luxury” of operating fixed-wing aircraft in the AEW role is France, because aircraft of this class require catapult take-off. Other nations that have aircraft carriers have to make do with AEW helicopters. China attempts to rely on its own strength in this respect: it has developed an AEW derivative of the locally produced Changhe Z-8, a modernized clone of the French Aerospatiale SA 321 Super Frelon helicopter. We may say with certainty that China is also working to develop a fixed-wing AEW platform, but this is probably still in its early stages.

Chinese Military Review
AEW helicopters Z-8 and Ka-31

In light of the above, the projected composition of the air component for China’s first two carriers, which is to comprise two dozen fighters and around 15 auxiliary aircraft per ship, seems to coincide with the estimate that 40 large airframes would be optimal for Project 1143.6. Any more aircraft per carrier would make flight deck manoeuvres and hangar operations difficult, thus affecting the number of sorties per day.

The Tasks Facing the Chinese Navy Carriers

So why is China spending hefty sums on building its own aircraft carrying fleet? Some of the reasons are quite common, while others are unique to that country.

First, China’s full-fledged ocean fleet operating beyond the range of its coastal aviation currently lacks both the air defence capabilities offered by carriers and their “long arm” intelligence capable of engaging enemy targets outside the range of anti-ship missiles. With carrier-based aviation, China would feel more at ease in the Pacific, and would be able to shift the hypothetical line of confrontation away from its coast.

Second, carriers are a powerful instrument for projecting global military and political force. The first long-distance voyage by a Chinese aircraft carrier strike force — even if just to the Indian Ocean — will certainly get the attention of the international community. It is true that China has never been keen to intervene in conflicts far away from its national borders, but there must be a reason why the Chinese Navy is setting up a supply base in Djibouti.

www.bloomberg.com
China's first aircraft carrier launches
They will help Beijing to significantly strengthen its position in the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Carriers also have roles to play that are specific to China. They will help Beijing to significantly strengthen its position in the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which is too far away from the country for its air force to operate comfortably. A carrier could become the core of a naval group that would keep the aircraft and sea-surface ships of other nations at bay and chase enemy submarines.

There is another important mission for the Chinese carriers. The country has finally started sending indigenous nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines on sea patrols. However, the East China Sea is relatively shallow for such operations. Even more disturbingly, it is populated by U.S. and allied military bases, including bases for anti-submarine warfare aircraft. The Chinese submarines would feel safer in the South China Sea, which is deeper and lies farther away from Japan, South Korea and Guam. In this case, however, they would require greater anti-aircraft and anti-submarine protection, because they would be farther away from home.

China’s efforts to build its Great Fleet continue to impress. It is hard to predict whether the country will manage to keep up this current pace in the future, but Beijing has already forced the international community to sit up and take notice. Russia, for its part, has every reason to observe the process with a mixture of envy and admiration. By sending to sea freshly painted warships built to Soviet specifications, whose flight deck are filled with Sukhoi fighters, Beijing is bringing Russia’s erstwhile plans and dreams to life.

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