Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Long March to Carrier Capability and the new Chinese Aircraft Carrier.

There has been a lot of coverage of the news that the Chinese Navy has recently conducted the first jet trials on their new aircraft carrier (Liaoning), with a total of 5 arrested landings (so-called touch and go) being carried out on trials.

This is clearly an impressive development, and shows that China has now proven itself capable of something that only the Navies of Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Russia, India, Thailand, the UK and US have previously done – namely land a jet at sea.

Does this mean though that the maritime balance of power in Asia has altered, and that the Chinese are suddenly a more potent force? Look at some of the hype on the internet and you’ll see portents of doom, with people declaring that these landings somehow make the Chinese Navy immensely capable and that the USN and RN and all other navies are somehow irrelevant.

A more balanced view is that actually this is a tiny step on a very long road towards generating a proper carrier capability. What we have seen demonstrated thus far is that the Liaoning is capable of conducting carrier trials for aircraft which didn’t appear to be carrying any weapons, and which were probably conducted in very favourable weather conditions. So, its an achievement, but not a declaration of full operational capability.

China has a long road to march down before they can truly call themselves a carrier power. The next steps ahead of them will include working up the vessel to operate aircraft indigenously – in other words embarking an air group and over time getting used to being able to operate, repair and generate aircraft for missions. This is not an easy task, and as the Royal Navy has found, losing the ability to practise working on fixed wing carriers means without support from the USN, the skills fade will rapidly erode the ability to recover this capability with the CVF entry into service. So, China will probably have to spend several years just getting used to operating aircraft at sea, and that’s before you consider the challenges of carrying out a mission.  

To employ the carrier operationally, the Chinese will have to work up to having the ability to generate aircraft, send them on missions such as ground support or fleet air defence, and then recover successfully. This requires a lot of investment and training in a range of areas,  and also the creation of a cadre of qualified pilots. Again, its not impossible to do, but it will take time. Even putting an airgroup to sea does not mean a vessel is actually combat ready – one could make a credible argument that the Admiral Kuznetzov, the Russian aircraft carrier has never actually achieved proper combat readiness (certainly her deployments are so irregular and short, it is hard to see her as a credible operational unit).

One of the challenges facing the RN at the point when CVF enters service will be taking the platform, integrating the airgroup and then turning this into a fully operational asset. This takes time, skills and training, and cannot be achieved through shortcuts. You have to merge in multiple aviation disciplines, including air to ground strikes, air defence, AEW, ASW and so on, and then be able to manage the battle in a manner which means these are used to full advantage. Its not just a case of watching Top Gun, taking off in a jet and then blasting bad guys out the sky. The Chinese Navy has got to achieve all of this if it wants to put a fully operational carrier to sea – and this takes a long time to learn.

Additional to the actual operation of the carrier, China also has to work up a proper battle group, not just in the sense of platforms sailing in close proximity to the carrier, but platforms which are properly integrated and able to collectively fight together. This needs to be supported by a chain of supply ships, capable of not only supporting up close with tanking and replenishment at sea, but also a longer logistics chain able to ensure spare parts can be sent to wherever the carrier will deploy. The Chinese are expanding their navy rapidly, and its going to take a lot of effort to generate the skills and experience required to run a proper carrier battle group. Again, this takes time and effort and a lot of skill to pull off. In the entire world, arguably only the USN can field a proper carrier battle group and its taken them decades of constant practise to get it right.

The Chinese have not only got to adapt to the challenges of integrating hulls into a coherent and operational force, but they have also got to adapt to thinking in a ‘blue water’ manner. Historically China has always been a ‘brown water navy’ operating in the littoral environment, and rarely at sea for more than a day or two. The notion of long deployments far from home, outside of a couple of training ships, has never really happened. The Chinese Navy has invested heavily in laundry equipment in recent years (e.g washing machines) to fit to their  vessels -  a small thing, but something that says a lot. A truly seagoing navy, which has a bluewater mentality regards the ability to keep crews functional at sea as an inherent part of a ships design. The Chinese have regarded their navy as far more coastal in nature, not requiring the same level of personnel support or comfort. The gradual move by China into deploying their Navy on a more frequent basis, and further away from home, is starting to shift this mentality, but it takes time to bring about change.

It is all very well having visions of Chinese aircraft carriers operating in the Atlantic Ocean, deploying airpower, but this is in fact at variance with established pattern of Chinese naval operations. It is hard to see, at least for the next 10-15 years, any major deployment by the Chinese Navy outside of its traditional area of operations, which will feature carriers deployed in a manner that the Western navies would recognise.  Instead it is likely that we will see smaller deployments, possibly the odd training deployment of a carrier, but a series of smaller ‘baby steps’ as the Chinese Navy seeks to gain not only practical operational experience, but also changes its mentality into a more blue water focused force.

Realistically we are looking at a much longer period of time before the Chinese Navy becomes a credible carrier power, and even then it is unlikely to become a power in the same way as the West would recognise it. The true mark of a ‘proper’ aircraft carrier operating nation is probably the ability to sustain a deployment of airpower, at distance from the homeland, working as part of an integrated battlegroup, able to deploy the full range of air operations on a 24/7 basis, and be relieved on a sustainable basis by a similar capability.

It is unlikely that any nation other than the US could do this for the next 10 years. It is hard to see China being able to simultaneously grow the equipment, skills, training and mindset needed to be a full time carrier power for at least 20-30 years. It may not even happen at all, particularly if Chinese doctrine only sees the carrier as being a platform for use in local waters.

So, the best conclusion to draw about this news is that China has started down the path to operating a carrier, but that it will be many years before it acquires a proper carrier capability, and even longer before this poses a credible threat to other first rate navies.


  1. The West was in a similar state of complacency during the Cold War when it was surprised by the speed with which the USSR achieved air parity, (on paper), with the Western Alliance
    In the case of sea power, the USSR exhibited, (on paper), similar craft to our own, but not Carriers.
    I think that China will foreshorten Sir Humph's time scales by a considerable margin, again on paper, by the same methods used by the USSR.
    First of all, and the most important factor, will be the blackmail of pride and face. Two very important aspects of Chinese culture. Unlike the West, with it's exaggerated sense of individual care and responsibility, the Chinese have no such compunctions in the way of attaining their objectives. Their kit might not be as reliable or pretty, but it will photograph well and look tremendously important on the front pages of the Press. It will be an powerful card to play in diplomatic terms. They will not give two hoots about loss of life. Test flights will be carried out in service squadrons, washing machines will not register as essential weapons and pilots will wash their own underpants, if they should live that long.
    Ruthlessness concentrates minds and smoke and mirrors bamboozle politicians.
    Portsmouth should expect a visit circa 2018.

  2. Sir H is correct in asserting that China is some way away from fielding a fully worked up CVBG. It may also be the case as suggested in some articles, that the purpose of the worked up ship would be to provide air defence for their South China Sea fleet, rather than a full-up strike capability.

    However, what should not be underestimated about the Chinese is their technical prowess - their shipbuilders are not peasants paid in bowls of rice, but very capable and increasing in capability by the year. Unlike Western governments, they also appear to be capable of creating a plan and executing it without undue prevarication and very single mindedly. The best description is momentum.

    Irrespective of how many hoots they give regarding loss of life (and I happen to think they can't continue to behave as they have previously), these boys are serious. Most importantly, the US JCS thinks they are serious and will be doing their level best to bring Barry O'Bama with them. All of which should give anyone still labouring under the delusion that the US is not disengaging from Europe and that Western European nations will have to fight their own battles, pause for thought.

    Chinese developments while not immediately threatening are not as distant as people may assume.

  3. Indeed, their 'aircraft carrying cruiser' (remember the Air Defense nature of the type of carrier...) has a very long way to go. I think its not something that's a concern to the US ans other 'western' navies. But for china's local neighbors - especially Vietnam (where in confrontations past, Chinese naval assets were bereft of air-cover) - this is of a far greater concern.

    Its seems to also reinvigorated India's plans as well.

  4. I think the Chinese mindset is pretty well 'we can do anything we put our mind to' these days, wether that be industrial, economic or defense (Very Victorian don't you think!). On that basis I think the timescales they will be looking at for full blown carrier capability will be far shorter than anyone expects. That said how truly effective this would be in the real world could be up for some doubt, at least lets hope so, but just like with the Soviets before them we should really be taking this very seriously. The sooner our carriers are out there plying the oceans of the world with full air wings the better. As has been stated previously the USN are reaching a bit of a crisis point of an aging fleet and real budget problems, this time we might need to be the cavalry!

  5. Humphrey, in regard to reactions on the recent carrier developments I do not have the impression at all, that hype would be a suitable description. Instead what could be read on western sites was a fairly extraordinary amount of patronizing, passive-aggressive "this means nothing, USN rules yadda yadda yadda". Selected quotes "China has arrived in 1945", "One pilot and one AC now carrier capable", "Whatever they do, all their stuff is stolen", "One US CSG will defeat entire PLAN". Very little acknowledgment of their progress.

    For context - 15 years ago the Chinese had an empty hulk, that only visually resembled a carrier, they had no carrier planes and no running program to build one. The J-15 went from reverse-engineering an old prototype in 2001 to at least eight flying prototypes and pre-production aircraft incl a two-seater in only 11 years. The Varyag was refurbished and filled with equipment within 14 years. We havent seen much of the inside of that ship, but the equipment they put on externally is not Russian, but domestic stuff, that suggests arguably a fair bit of indigenous development. All this while the Russians are still trying to get their act together in refurbishing one of their own ships for India, a project that by now is taking twice as long as expected and costs a hilarious amount of money (to be fair, Vikramadityas reconstruction is extensive, still...).

    And its not like they channel all their funds into that one prestige project. I am not a fanboy, who spends time gazing at PS images, nor am I warmongering and putting this in the context of a Red menace. What I can see though over the past ten years is, that most Western observers are time and again caught out cold, when it comes to projecting Chinese progress on major military programs. So far thats a simple fact of life.

    Re some of your points: is touch and go not something different to arrested landings? They definitely did several touch and go's before, based on images, while this latest thing was two J-15 performing both arrested landings and take-offs.

    As far as deployments go, the PLAN has been sending more than a dozen flotillas on piracy patrols over the past few years in Somalia. They always had two FFG or DDG plus AOR deployed in sustained patrols. They also sent a flotilla into the Med in support of evac ops of Chinese workers in Libya. Their hospital ships have also been busy in Latin America and elsewhere. I dont see any carriers in the Atlantic anytime soon, but the notion of the Chinese fleet as having had no long range deployments is arguably not true anymore for a few years now.

    Of course the longer one operates a capability, the better one gets, yet I am not sure, it took the USN "decades to get it right". Instead they have been operating CSG for decades, with their most productive use only less than two decades after they first started looking into the whole carrier business. Changing technology over time requires adaption and evolution of skills, but China is not replicating that process from scratch, instead benefitting from what others have done before. They certainly dont operate a "Langley" right now and its safe to say, they wont need to wait for decades before putting to sea a credible capability. Personally I give it about two years before they start embarking an air group for sustained training on Liaoning. Time will tell.

  6. A "proper" carrier capability, a "proper" battle group? If you are only going to apply a standard that has been met by one nation in history ("in the entire world, arguably only the USN can field a proper carrier battle group"), then perhaps your conclusion will be a bit one-dimensional. All it gives you is a measure against the USA, and that hardly seems fair or analytically very useful - after all, there is no reason why a nation would try to follow the pattern of the USA, even if their objective was to become a serious rival in terms of some future contest at sea (which I don't think is necessarily the case here). Surely the most meaningful metric here would be based on China's strategic requirements and the ambitions particular to the time and place in that context.