Written by Brian Kalman exclusively for SouthFront; Brian Kalman is a management professional in the marine transportation industry. He was an officer in the US Navy for eleven years. He currently resides and works in the Caribbean.
The world has witnessed the rapid growth of a small, but increasingly capable Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Aircraft Carrier program. The Chinese government bought a semi-completed aircraft carrier from Ukraine in 1998, the Kiev Class Varyag, and used the platform to launch its first aircraft carrier in 2012. Named the Liaoning CV-16, the vessel was developed into the nation’s first training platform to test the abilities of China’s first generation of carrier borne naval aviators. With no prior history of such operations, unlike the navies of the United States, Britain or Japan, it was seen by many analysts as extremely ambitious. Many western pundits criticized the PLAN’s aspirations as either impossible to obtain or as a sign of a growing expansionism.
With many naval analysts and strategists pointing to the current obsolescence of the aircraft carrier as a decisive asset in modern naval warfare, the question arises, why is China investing so much effort and treasure in developing a viable aircraft carrier force? Furthermore, how do they plan to employ such a force? China has spent the past two and a half decades developing a fledgling aircraft carrier force, complete with naval crews, flight deck experts, and naval aviators in a move most closely comparable to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s similar, determined course in the 1920s and 1930s. While developing an impressive ballistic missile force, including hundreds of long range anti-ship ballistic missiles, arguably aimed predominantly at defeating U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups, China has also decided to develop an aircraft carrier force of its own. Why?
In order to answer this question, one has to take a deeper look at China’s overall defensive strategy, especially in maritime terms. As detailed in an earlier analysis titled “China’s Maritime Strategic Realignment”, China is increasingly concentrating on securing its maritime lines of communication and supply. The development of the One Belt One Road trade initiative demands that China secure increasingly vital maritime trade lanes that will ensure future prosperity and power, not only for the Middle Kingdom, but for innumerable Chinese trade partners and allies. How can China best secure these long maritime trade lanes and the numerous port facilities and transportation hubs at various points along this new maritime Silk Road?
China has chosen a multifaceted, multilayered defensive strategy which relies on a number of different components. These assets can work independently or in conjunction, and can take the form of rapid power projection forces responding across the length and breadth of China’s growing maritime domain, or a multilayered and flexible echelon of defensive weapons and bastions all working in conjunction. The Chinese leadership has wisely invested many decades of economic achievements in modernizing and transforming a once archaic national military into a powerful, high tech fighting force that is increasingly able to project power rapidly and with greater flexibility over greater distances.
Many western analysts and pundits have pointed out the weaknesses of China’s first generation of aircraft carriers in comparison to their U.S. counterparts; however, China does not intend to utilize its aircraft carriers in a similar fashion as those of the U.S. Navy. While the United States Navy uses its Carrier Strike Groups (CSG) to enforce its global dominance and as a tool to punish any nation too militarily weak to counter these large vessels and the relatively short range strike aircraft that they bring to battle, the PLAN will use its future carriers as a naval force multiplier, regional rapid reaction power projection tool, and as one component in an overlapping, multilayered echeloned defense comprised of land based anti-ship ballistic cruise missiles, aircraft, manmade island strong points, and fast and potent naval fleets. China’s naval strategy will not be carrier-centric, instead using aircraft carriers as a useful component in a predominantly defensive maritime posture.
China began developing carrier borne strike aircraft as soon as the decision was made to invest in turning the Varyag into a functioning aircraft carrier. The J-15 Flying Shark was the product of this effort. Although hamstrung by the Short Take Off But Arrested Landing (STOBAR) system utilized by China’s first two carriers, the J-15 aircraft boasts great potential in future Catapult Assisted Take-off But Arrested Landing (CATOBAR) operations, which China is presently working toward. The CATOBAR system of operation will not only help the PLAN realize the full potential of its first naval strike aircraft, but will also allow it to develop and make use of a wide range of defensive and offensive fixed wing naval aviation assets. In order to appreciate the potential of the PLAN’s young, yet developing aircraft carrier force, a study of its modern naval aviation arm is essential to understanding where this fledgling force is heading.
The rather humble beginnings of the PLAN aircraft carrier program can be traced to the early 1990s, and the dissolving of the Soviet Union. In this same period, China’s economic power was growing exponentially, and the nation’s leadership was looking decades down the road in determining how to best defend the growing maritime trade centered around the east and southeastern port cities such as Shanghai, Shenzhen, Ningbo, Guangzhou, Tianjin and Dalian. Deng Xiaoping’s leadership influence over the “Four Modernizations” program and his embracing of “market socialism” were largely an about-face from Mao’s policies of economic self-reliance, and put China on the road to become an economic powerhouse. This new found wealth and prosperity brought a much greater degree of political and diplomatic power to a country that had spent centuries introverted and besieged by outside powers. China found itself on a path of ascendance to regional and global power.
While China adopted useful and beneficial aspects of capitalist economics, it also was quite determined to acquire the modern military capabilities of western nations, chief among them the United States. A concerted espionage effort to acquire U.S. military technology, and the willingness of a corrupt and incompetent Clinton administration in giving China access to advanced technologies that had military applications, both worked toward establishing the foundations of the rapid military modernization of the People’s Republic of China armed forces witnessed over the past quarter century. At what point the decision was made to make the massive investment in terms of money, energy and effort to pursue development of aircraft carriers for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is shrouded in secrecy, but such a decision was made at the highest levels of government.
The origins of China’s first operational aircraft carrier are shrouded in mystery, and in many ways read like an Ian Fleming spy novel. The aircraft carrier that would one day become the Liaoning, was laid down in a shipyard in Ukraine. It was an Admiral Kuznetsov Class vessel named Riga, yet by the time she was launched in 1988, she had been renamed Varyag. Considering the deplorable economic state of post-Soviet Ukraine, who took over ownership of the vessel in 1991, Varyag was only 65% completed before the decision was made to put the vessel up for sale by the cash strapped Ukrainian government in 1992.
A prospective buyer was not found until 1998, when a winning bid was announced on behalf of the owner of the Chong Lot Travel Agency, a private company based in Hong Kong owned and operated by a Chinese national named Xu Zengping. Xu had announced his intentions of turning the Varyag into a hotel and casino to be anchored in Macao, the semi-autonomous Chinese territory and former Portuguese trading colony. Although it must have been known to western intelligence services that the transaction was actually being made on behalf of the PLAN, as Xu had multiple meetings with the head of the navy, Vice Admiral He Pengfei, prior to his public announcements. The Chinese government made no actions to aid Xu in the purchase and transportation of the vessel, which was fraught with costly delays and numerous obstacles, in an attempt to remain unconnected to the transaction. It is now known that Vice Admiral He Pengfei directed Xu to purchase the Varyag so that the PLAN could realize its ambition of building an aircraft carrier program.
Perhaps in a mixture of arrogance and underestimation of China’s national will and technical abilities, the United States made no attempt to block the sale or to exert diplomatic pressure that would have forced the Chinese to abandon the effort to obtain the ship. Xu claims that:
“I promised He that I would take the carrier home at any cost, because I really appreciated his patriotism. He was a responsible leader who devoted himself to China’s long-term defense and maritime strategies, daring to take political risks for the right decision.”
Xu finalized the deal in March of 1998, and the vessel left the Ukrainian shipyard under tow in July of 1999. The vessel did not depart the Black Sea until Turkey approved its transit of the Dardanelles, previously citing safety concerns, in late November of 2001. The vessel did not arrive in Dalian for study, refurbishment and refitting until March of 2002, four years after Xu purchased the Varyag for $20 million USD. He estimates that the total cost to deliver the vessel to the PLAN at $120 million USD. Xu also asserts that he was not reimbursed for any of this cost. With Vice Admiral He’s death in 2001, and the imprisonment on corruption charges of former PLA intelligence chief, Ji Shengde, who Xu claims masterminded the operation, Xu never received any formal recognition for his efforts, nor monetary compensation. This is of course, the public record. Xu is held in high esteem by the current PLAN leadership, and is sure to have been rewarded in some fashion off the record.
The new Liaoning CV-16 (Type 001) completed sea trials and was commissioned in 2012, and after extensive training exercises focused on all aspects of aircraft carrier operations including flight operations, flight deck management, and coordination and maneuver with assigned task force warships, the vessel was declared combat operational on November 14th, 2016. Although much has been written regarding the progress of the Liaoning as an operational carrier in recent years, mostly presented by western media as no match for U.S. nuclear carriers and their large strike wings, the Liaoning has been extremely successful as a first step in mastering the art of carrier borne naval flight operations. Assuming that the PLAN started actively planning such a program as early as 1992, when the Varyag went up for sale, much was accomplished in the 24 years it took to realize the navy’s first operational aircraft carrier. Using the Laioning as a starting point, Chinese shipbuilders were able to design, build and launch her successor, the Shandong CV-17 (Type 001A) in just four years. Fitting out and sea trials should be accomplished by late 2019.
While the Varyag was purchased from the Ukraine in 1998, Chinese efforts were soon underway to acquire a naval strike fighter from that same country. The Shenyang Aircraft Company acquired a Su-33 prototype aircraft, the T-10K from the Ukraine in 2001, and had already been producing the Su-27 locally in China under license from Russia as the J-11. The extensive study of both of these aircraft would lead to Shenyang producing China’s first naval strike aircraft, the J-15 Flying Shark.
The J-15 Flying Shark
The indigenous Chinese arms industry has a long history of reverse engineering and cloning or copying both Russian and U.S. weapons systems. While earlier aircraft such as the J-7 were copies of the Soviet era Mig 21, the newer generation of fighters operated by the PLAAF and PLAN are based on the Flanker series of air superiority fighters produced by the Russian Federation. China greatly relied upon licensing deals with Russia to obtain the ability to produce the SU-27 legally within China. China’s own aeronautics industry has matured greatly in the past 25 years and has led to a series of advanced air superiority fighters based on the Flanker airframe being produced in China.
The J-15 has been coined the Chinese version of the SU-33, because its pedigree comes from both the SU-27 and a T-10K prototype of the SU-33. Basically a navalized version of the SU-27 Flanker, the SU-33 was developed for aircraft carrier operations for the Russian Navy. The J-15 shares an almost identical airframe to the SU-33 (though making use of lightweight composite and radar absorbing materials), yet it has a number of differences of Chinese origin such as its glass canopy, cockpit oxygenator, locally produced Active Electronically Scanning Array radar (AESA), and an onboard weapons suite tailored to an increasingly capable family of Chinese air-to-air and anti-shipping missiles and precision guided munitions.
The only area of easily identifiable weakness of the Chinese aeronautics industry is its inability to produce jet engines on par with its Russian counterpart. China still relies heavily on Russian produced engines for indigenously produced airframes. The Russian AL-31F engine is superior in every respect to the Chinese WS-10A engine that powers the J-11, most glaringly in maximum thrust produced and overall reliability. China had intended to power all J-15s with the indigenously produced engines, in the overall effort to reach 100% self-reliance in defense procurement; however, it was soon decided that in the case of a carrier borne strike aircraft, reliability and thrust required for take-off demanded that the initial group of J-15s supplied to the PLAN should be powered with the Russian AL-31F engines. The PLAN has only one operational regiment of J-15s, based at Huangdicun Airbase on Hainan Island. The latest batch of J-15s that are involved in testing catapult launch operations at Huangdicun appear to be powered by WS-10A engines, denoting a possible improvement to the engines and the determination to move toward total independence in defense procurement.
Due to the limitations inherent in a “Short Take Off-But Arrested Recovery” (STOBAR) aircraft carrier operation, the J-15 is limited in its maximum take-off weight. A J-15 launched from the Liaoning musty either sacrifice fuel, limiting operational range, or weapons load-out, limiting its combat effectiveness and flexibility. In its current manifestation, the J-15 is configured primarily for fleet defense, but can also conduct short range strike operations. Fleet defense and air superiority mission load-out would consist of PL-8 short range air-to-air missiles, PL-12 long range air-to-air missiles or YJ-83K anti-ship cruise missiles.
It is important to note that as the PLAN develops a catapult launch system, either steam driven or electromagnetically driven, the maximum design take-off weight of the J-15 will become attainable from the deck of China’s next generation of aircraft carrier, most likely the planned CV-18. A next generation of J-15 strike aircraft similar to the J-16 multi-role strike fighter or SU-34 are likely in the planning stages to augment the future combat wing for a “Catapult Take-off But Arrested Recovery” (CATOBAR) carrier.
Loaded Weight: 27,000 kg. (60,000 lbs.)
Maximum Take-off Weight: 33,000 kg. (72,752 lbs.)
Range: 1,500 km. (932 ml.)
Ferry Range: 3,500 km. (2,174.8 ml.)
Maximum Speed: Mach 1.98 (2,100 kmph; 1,305 mph)
Radar: Active Electronically Scanned Phased Array (AESA)
Weapons Systems: 1 x 30mm GSh-30-1 cannon
12 External Hardpoints to accommodate external munitions loads including:
PL-8 short range air-to-air missiles
PL-12 long range air-to air missiles (200 km range)
YJ-83K anti-ship cruise missiles
Precision guided bombs
Engines: 2 x Russian AL-31F or Chinese WS-10A/H turbofan jet engines
From STOBAR to CATOBAR
As I detailed in an earlier analysis posted a year ago titled “Chinese Aircraft Development Update: PLAN Naval Aviation Matures and Practices Catapult Launches”, the PLAN has been actively developing the means and skills to conduct CATOBAR flight operations. As the Shandong CV-17 was designed and constructed as a STOBAR aircraft carrier, although with a much improved communications and sensory suite, Type 346A active phased array radar (APAR) and increased aircraft hangar and maintenance space, the third aircraft carrier that is currently in the planning stages will logically be an entirely new design. This new design will be a CATOBAR carrier equipped with either steam driven or electromagnetically driven catapults. As steam driven catapult technology is proven and efficient, it was assumed that China’s first CATOBAR aircraft carrier would most likely utilize a steam driven system; however, as both systems are apparently being tested at the Huangdicun facility, China may decide to use an Electro-Magnetic Launching System (EMALS) at some point in the future. EMALS, once perfected, will theoretically cause less wear and tear on airframes and allow for shorter launch intervals.
The United States Navy has experienced difficulty in getting the EMALS system utilized aboard the new Gerald R. Ford Class CVNs to operate as designed. Initial flight testing revealed that the system could not launch an F/A-18 at its maximum take-off weight. If China can perfect a more reliable EMALS, it would make sense to adopt the technology in a future CATOBAR aircraft carrier. The South China Morning Post reported in November of 2017 that China had experienced a breakthrough in developing an integrated propulsion system that could meet the high power generation needs of an EMALS system, without using a nuclear power source. If this disclosure turns out to be accurate, than the PLAN’s future conventional carriers may in fact field a state of the art EMALS.
The logical advancement to operating CATOBAR carriers will bring a host of essential benefits to a mature PLAN aircraft carrier force. The PLAN is currently training a first generation of naval aviators who are mastering both ski-ramp and catapult assisted take-offs and arrested landings on a flight deck measuring approximately 315 meters (1,033 ft.) in length. These pilots will form the core of a growing force of naval aviators who will provide the skills and experience needed to train the pilots required, if the PLAN is determined to operate a number of carrier strike groups (CSG) in the near future.
As reported by the South China Morning Post this year, the PLAN has announced that the approval for building CV-18 was granted in March of 2016 by the Chinese Communist Party legislature. The vessel will be constructed at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai and will be considerably larger than the two preceding designs, with a planned displacement of over 80,000 tons, a much larger flight deck, smaller “island”, and a catapult launch system. Such a design will make the PLAN only the third navy in the world to operate CATOBAR carriers, alongside France and the United States.
The evolution from STOBAR to CATOBAR will bring many advantages. Catapult assisted launches allow for aircraft of much larger mass to be launched from the flight deck of an air craft carrier and this equates to larger payloads (whether munitions, cargo, or fuel in the case of carrier borne tankers) and fuel loads. Larger fixed-wing aircraft including cargo planes, aerial refueling tankers, airborne early warning and control (AEW&C), and anti-submarine aircraft can all be utilized by an aircraft carrier equipped with catapults. When these aircraft can be accommodated and the maximum take-off weight of strike aircraft can be realized, the effective range of operations of an aircraft carrier strike group are greatly increased, as well the over-all flexibility of such a group in carrying out a range of missions.
Currently, the PLAN is forced to rely upon rotary-wing aircraft to fulfill the roles of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and the transport of cargo and personnel to and from its first two aircraft carriers. The PLAAF and PLAN operate a number of different long range, land based AEW&C aircraft. Future carrier strike groups will gain greater overall operational flexibility and self-reliance when a viable carrier borne AEW&C aircraft can be designed and fielded for the CV-18 and all follow on carriers. The range limitation of rotary-wing ASW aircraft is obvious, and a fixed-wing ASW platform that can provide a longer range ASW defense for the future carrier strike groups would also be a great asset in ensuring the effectiveness and survivability of future carriers.
Airborne Early Warning and Control
China has been interested in developing a capable AEW&C aircraft since the U.S. put the Boeing E-3 Sentry into service in 1976, and has put no less than five such aircraft into service since the mid-1990s. The Chinese PLAAF made use of a British radar system, the Raycal Skymaster, and mounted it in a large radome in the nose of a Y-8 prop driven transport. Another aircraft was created by mounting an electronically scanned phased array radar in an elongated “canoe” enclosure along the upper fuselage of a Y-8W aircraft. Both the PLAAF and PLAN operate this aircraft. The KJ-500 followed these aircraft in the 2000s, with the first prototypes developed in 2013. The KJ-500 mounts a non-rotating, dish shaped radar dome fixed dorsally on a YJ-9 aircraft. The fixed dome carries an electronically scanned phased array radar with three antennas in a similar fashion as its larger cousin the KJ-2000. The KJ-2000 is based on the very large IL-76 aircraft, with only four in operation since its introduction in 2005. It is most likely that the Chinese PLAAF will look to develop a similar, yet more capable AEW&C aircraft using the new indigenous Y-20 airframe.
With almost thirty years invested in the development of numerous AEW&C systems, based on numerous radars and airframes, the Chinese defense industry is more than capable of producing an effective carrier launched version. The Chinese aviation industry has matured greatly over the same period of time, as have the local producers of advanced radar, communications and sensory technology. China has made a number of significant advances in strategic aviation over the past twenty years. A carrier borne AEW&C aircraft would greatly extend the effective range of strike aircraft and increase the accuracy of anti-shipping missiles integrated into a command and control network guided by such an aircraft, and would improve the overall ability of a carrier strike group to develop and manage a more accurate picture of a constantly changing naval battlespace.
It appears that the Chinese aircraft industry is busy developing a carrier borne AEW&C aircraft along the lines of the U.S. E-2D Hawkeye. The U.S. Navy has utilized the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye in the AEW&C role since 1964, with the aircraft being continuously upgraded since its operational debut. The aircraft also serves as the main AEW&C aircraft for the French Navy’s Charles DeGaulle CVN; however, the French use the E-2C variant. The Indian Navy is currently considering the E-2D Hawkeye for its planned INS Vishal aircraft carrier, but the program is still in the very early planning stages. The Indian Navy is considering the purchase of four E-2Ds and utilizing them as land-based AEW&C platforms in the interim.
Photographic evidence and satellite imagery began to appear on the internet early last year suggesting that airframe mock-ups and even an early prototype of a Chinese aircraft with a similar layout to the E-2 was being developed. The prototype JZY-01 is being developed into an entirely new aircraft, what is being dubbed the KJ-600. The Xian Aircraft Corporation is developing the plane for the next generation of PLAN aircraft carriers. It is rumored to have a design maximum takeoff weight of approximately 25 to 30 tons, utilizes two FWJ-6c turboprop engines, and mounts an AESA radar in a radome mounted above the fuselage. It will have a rear-folding main wing and four vertical stabilizer/rudder tail section. Although designed to be used from the deck of the CV-18 and all future carriers, the aircraft could be put into service prior to the completion of the CV-18, being based at the newly completed island air bases in the Spratly archipelago. The PLAN currently relies on a rotary wing AEW&C aircraft on its first generation of aircraft carriers, the Z-18J medium helicopter. The Z-18J is equipped with an AESA radar with a large, retractable antenna fitted in the rear of the fuelage.
China currently utilizes a rotary-wing element to fill the ASW role onboard the Liaoning CV-16. This will remain the case for the Shandong CV-17; however, the CV-18 will have the ability to accept a fixed-wing ASW aircraft. There is no current evidence supporting the creation of such an aircraft on the part of the Chinese aviation industry at this time, but such a development would not be surprising. The U.S. Navy utilized such platforms throughout the Cold War, only retiring the last such aircraft, the S-3 Viking, from service onboard its carriers in 2009.
Many naval analysts see the abandonment of a long range ASW aircraft without a viable replacement as a shortsighted and unwise omission from the current and future U.S. carrier air wing, especially at a time when near peer nations have developed increasingly powerful submarine forces. Currently, U.S. CSGs rely on a combination of aircraft to fulfill the ASW role, including the F/A-18 Hornet and the rotary wing MH-60R Seahawk. The F/A-18 is not designed for ASW warfare, but can detect submarines in some situations out to medium range (approximately 40 nautical miles). The lion share of ASW functions are tasked to the Helicopter Sea Combat (HSC) squadrons utilizing the MH-60R. This highly advanced helicopter specializes in ASW and mine countermeasures on all active U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. Although extremely effective, it suffers from the inherent weaknesses of any rotary-wing aircraft; short operational range and endurance. The PLAN currently relies on the Z-18F helicopter to perform ASW duties onboard the Liaoning.
With renewed calls within naval establishments to develop an aircraft to pick up the mantel abandoned by the S-2 Tracker and S-3 Viking, it is quite possible that Chinese naval planners will investigate development of a similar platform. The YJ-8/9 airframe could be adapted to such a role, and maintenance efficiencies could be achieved by sharing components with the KJ-600. A Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) aircraft could also utilize a similar airframe. The U.S. Navy leadership either showed amazing complacency or arrogance in its management of the aircraft component of the current and future CSG. Virtually all functions and missions have been tasked to the F/A-18 with its limited operational range. This shortcoming will not be remedied by the F-35C, if it ever becomes operational on a broad scale. China must exhibit the wisdom and insight to resist a similar temptation with the J-15 airframe and instead develop a range of dedicated aircraft, designed for specific functions. Using shared airframe components, avionics, and weapons systems will provide a number of maintenance and cost efficiencies without sacrificing operational performance. It appears that China is following just such a plan.
A Future Naval J-16 or Su-34
The J-15 is far from the only advanced rendition of the Flanker family to grace the ranks of the PLA air arms. The PLAAF operates the J-11B and the J-16 multi-role fighters. Like the J-15 Flying Shark, the J-11B is a single seat aircraft based on the SU-27, while the J-16 Red Eagle is a two seat analog of the Russian Su-30MKK in many respects. An export variant of the fighter, Russia tailor made the SU-30MKK to the requirements of the PLAAF. The J-16 first went into service in 2015, with the 176th Brigade, which is based at the Flight Test and Training Center at Cangzhou, in the province of Hebei. This airbase hosts a number of units that focus on the flight testing of new aircraft, the development of standard operating procedures and the tactics required to best exploit the strengths of these aircraft.
The J-16 has since been adopted by at least three combat units of the PLAAF, the 176th and 172nd Brigades based at Cangzhou, and the 98th Brigade based at Chongqing in the southwest of the country. It is noteworthy that the PLAAF has decided to upgrade the 98th Brigade to the new J-16, as the airbase at Chongqing is much closer to the disputed borders of India and Bhutan. The J-16 has been designed and developed as a strike aircraft that can defend itself in air-to-air combat, yet excel at attacking ground targets as well. It’s positioning closer to the disputed India-China border sends a clear message to India that China is prepared to fight to exercise its sovereignty over disputed territory.
The J-16 has a crew of two, seated in tandem. The crew consists of a pilot and a flight officer who split up the duties of managing the advanced weapons, radar and communications systems of this long range, precision strike aircraft. The J-16 has twelve external hardpoints to carry any of the indigenously manufactured air-to-air missiles, anti-ship missiles, air-launched cruise missiles, unguided bombs and precision guided munitions in the PLAAF inventory, as well as the Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) pods currently in use. The aircraft has a maximum take-off weight of approximately 35,000 kg. (77,000 lbs.) and an operational range of roughly 3,900 kms. (2,400 mls.). It is surmised that the J-16 has the ability to target long range aerial, ground and naval targets through data networking with other aerial platforms, such as other J-16s, the J-20 stealth fighter and AEW&C aircraft. An electronic warfare version of the plane, the J-16D, designed to perform Suppression on Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) missions, has also been developed over the past year.
While the PLAAF has begun fielding the J-16 in greater numbers, there is no reason to believe that a navalized version of the aircraft cannot be utilized in the future by PLAN aircraft carrier air wings at some point in the near future. Although significantly larger than the J-15, the two aircraft are not greatly dissimilar in design and dimension, sharing the same Flanker lineage. They share a majority of airframe components and much of the same avionics. It is not unreasonable to assert that aircrews, flight deck crews and maintenance personnel on board future CV-18 class carriers would be comfortable working with both aircraft. A larger strike aircraft such as the J-16 would be a great compliment to a future carrier strike wing. A carrier borne SEAD and Electronic Warfare (EW) aircraft based on the J-16D, along the lines of the U.S. Navy’s EA-18G Growler, would present a significant force multiplier for the PLAN. Such a development is logical and well within the capabilities of China’s defense industry.
Even more interesting than the adaption of the J-16 strike aircraft to aircraft carrier operations is the possibility of a Chinese analog of the Russian SU-34 being developed for such a purpose. In late 2015, images began appearing on the internet of a Chinese military aircraft similar to the SU-34 in a number of respects. This photograph has never been verified, nor the aircraft depicted identified. If the Chinese military is working on an SU-34 type aircraft and have a working prototype, than such a large and heavy aircraft would likely be in development for the PLAAF and not the PLAN. The airframe exhibited in the photograph, if authentic, may not depict a bomber aircraft, but a side-by-side trainer like the SU-27KUB/(SU-33UB) which was produced by Russia in small numbers between 1995 and 1998 to aid in the training of naval aviators.
There is also the possibility that China is developing a long distance strike aircraft for its future aircraft carriers that is of similar design to the SU-33UB. A side-by-side crew orientation has proven to optimize crew efficiency in conducting complex tasks, especially of long duration. The now retired U.S. Navy A-6 Intruder, EA-6 Prowler and S-3 Viking all made use of such a flight crew orientation. The A-6 Intruder was an extremely successful aircraft design; however, it was slow and required fighter escort or a target area where the enemy air defense system had been significantly suppressed or defeated in order to carry out bombing missions. A carrier borne bomber/strike aircraft based on the fast and maneuverable SU-27 would eliminate such weaknesses and provide the PLAN with a bomber that could hold its own and defend itself in aerial combat while also bringing to bare a host of guided ordinance on targets, especially with the aid of a carrier based AEW&C aircraft.
How Will the PLAN Utilize its Carriers?
Without a doubt, the most important question to be answered when analyzing the impressive advancements made in developing the vessels, aircraft and skilled personnel required to operate a viable aircraft carrier force on the part of the PLAN, is what the organization intends to do with them. What role will such a force play in the maritime strategy and overall geopolitical goals and intentions of the Chinese state? After a quarter of a century laying the foundations of such a substantial national security asset, the Chinese national leadership has made it abundantly clear that carrier borne naval aviation will play a key role in securing China’s security and prosperity well into the future.
Many western publications have downplayed the impressive progress that China has made in recent years in fielding the Liaoning, a regiment of J-15 naval strike fighters comprised of many skilled personnel, and even the construction and launch of the nation’s first indigenously produced aircraft carrier. These accomplishments, especially when one considers the short amount of time involved, are without precedent. Many critics of the program point out that China’s new vessels and aircraft are not on par with the massive aircraft carrier forces of the United States, and would have no hope of combating them head-to-head in a conflict in the near future. This is a pointless assertion to make, as the PLAN has absolutely no intention of maneuvering itself into such a scenario.
At the current stage of development, China will not risk its first two aircraft carriers in any misguided, foreign policy adventure such as a regional conflict or naval conflict with the United States, unless such a scenario is absolutely unavoidable. If such a scenario were to hypothetically occur, China’s first generation of ski-jump aircraft carriers would form one component in a multifaceted defense consisting of a number of concentric echelons of defense. In a regional naval conflict in Asia, China would be at a distinct advantage over its U.S. adversary in a number of respects. China would occupy the central position, control the internal lines of communication, occupy a string of land-based military support facilities and airfields centrally located or directly adjacent to the area of conflict, and an unmatched superiority in long range anti-ship ballistic missiles. China’s DF-21D ASBM has an effective range of approximately 1,087-1,800 miles (maximum range estimates are in dispute), while the F/A-18s and few F-35B strike fighters theoretically available for deployment, have an effective combat range of 460 miles and 690 miles respectfully, without aerial refueling. Aerial tankers would be prime targets of PLAAF long range interceptors such as the J-16 and J-20.
If both sides were determined to engage in a major military conflict in China’s back yard, the first battlespace to see action would be cyber war, electronic warfare and the attempted elimination of one another’s navigation, communication and surveillance satellites. This is a complex topic for another analysis; however, assuming that both sides could significantly damage the satellite guidance and communications satellites of their adversary, which side would be left at a greater advantage, the side fighting close to home and controlling the central position, or the force fighting on the periphery, with long, unsecured lines of communication and supply, and hundreds of miles away from allied bases of support and thousands of miles away from their own bases of supply and support? The answer is obvious.
The above scenario is a vast oversimplification of the many variables to consider in the complex and multifaceted reality of modern naval warfare, but simple conclusions can be deduced. Over the past fifty years of U.S. military dominance and imperial ambition, the United States’ political and military leadership have lost sight of the initial purpose of the aircraft carrier as a powerful component of a naval task force that would primarily engage and eliminate enemy fleets, before taking up the secondary role of providing air support to forces engaged ashore or during amphibious operations. Although the closing days of World War II and the advent of the manned cruise missile of the day, the Kamikaze, and even more a harbinger of the things to come, the Oka of “Cherry Blossom” manned anti-shipping rocket, should have given American naval strategists reason to question the supremacy of the aircraft carrier in future naval warfare. The defeat of Imperial Japan seems to have ended any constructive arguments within the U.S. military and political establishment as to the future role of the aircraft carrier. Its supremacy was assumed.
In the 73 years that have followed the end of the Second World War, the U.S. Navy and in a larger context, U.S. foreign policy as a whole, at least in terms of the use of military force, power projection and naval presence, became “carrier-centric”. U.S. carrier strike groups have prowled the sea lanes of the world intimidating and punishing any nation (without exception all lacking a viable naval deterrent or strong air defense capability) that would dare to work counter to the dictates of the American Empire. Any nation with enough military and technical resources to field countermeasures that represented a viable threat to a U.S. carrier were spared from attack. Russia and China both spent those decades perfecting and deploying anti-shipping missiles that were increasingly accurate at longer ranges, and increasingly difficult to interdict. So, after so many decades, and so many advancements in technology, who made the better investment?
There is no exclusive answer to this question. The U.S. has remained the dominant naval power in the world, and Russia and China, while fielding the most powerful anti-ship ballistic and cruise missile forces in the world, have still remained determined to maintain aircraft carriers in their navies. A viable Russian aircraft carrier program is largely in doubt, yet China is making significant strides along the path to building a powerful aircraft carrier component for the PLAN. They also seem determined to learn from the mistakes made by the United States, having keenly observed the deterioration of the U.S. Navy’s carriers/air wing team. In fact, what is the value of an aircraft carrier without its air wing?
In March of 2013, Captain Henry J. Hendrix (USN), authored a short yet informative cost benefit analysis of the modern U.S. Navy aircraft carrier/air wing team entitled “At What Cost a Carrier?” It is an extremely enlightening study. He highlights the increasing costs of operating a U.S. nuclear powered aircraft carrier:
“The Nimitz-class carriers can generate approximately 120 sorties a day. The Ford-class carriers, with the new electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), are projected to launch around 160 sorties per day, a 33 percent increase in launch capacity. This seems very impressive until one realizes that the USS George H.W. Bush, the last Nimitz carrier, cost $7 billion, and the USS Gerald R. Ford is coming in at $13.5 billion. In the end, the nation is paying nearly 94 percent more for a carrier that can only do 33 percent more work.”
Later in the study he compares the cost of the Chinese DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile to that of the Gerald R. Ford class CVN and illustrates the disparity in cost and likely survivability of the new carrier:
“Using a maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MaRV) placed on a CSS-5 missile, China’s Second Artillery Division states that its doctrine will be to saturate a target with multiple warheads and multiple axis attacks, overwhelming the target’s ability to defend itself. The MaRV warhead itself would use a high explosive, or a radio frequency or cluster warhead that at a minimum could achieve a mission kill against the target ship. While the United States does not know the cost of this weapon system, some analysts have estimated its procurement costs at $5 million to $11 million. Assuming the conservative, high-end estimate of $11 million per missile gives an exchange ratio of $11 million to $13.5 billion, which means that China could build 1,227 DF-21Ds for every carrier the United States builds going forward.”
While Boeing states that the “fly-away” cost of the F/A18E Super Hornet is approximately $53.8 million, the F-35C per-unit cost currently stands at $121.8 million and climbing. What is the U.S. Navy and the American citizen getting for these vast expenditures of money? The per-unit cost of the J-15 is currently around $50.8 million and declining as China expands production. At the same time a J-16 likely costs $50-$55 million per plane and declining as serial production expands. By comparison, an export variant of the SU-27 stands at approximately $18 million due to the efficiency of the mature Russian aviation industry and the large number of units produced. China hopes to reduce the cost of producing advanced aircraft as manufacturing efficiencies are attained and serial production increases.
The Duowei News reported in late 2013 that the China Central Military Commission disclosed that the contract to build two Type 001A aircraft carriers signed with the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation was valued at $9 billion. While this figure is hard to substantiate, and has obviously increased as an entirely new design is now under construction, with only one Type 001A completed, the total cost per Chinese carrier is substantially lower than the $13.5 billion price tag of the Gerald R. Ford class. It becomes readily apparent that China is getting a higher return on its investment and more “bang for its buck” than is the U.S, but is the cost worth the expenditure in light of the obvious vulnerabilities of the aircraft carrier on 21st century naval battlefield? This depends on a number of factors and how China intends to use the new tool in its tool kit.
The Chinese leadership has reached the point where it feels that the security of the Chinese mainland has been guaranteed, and has started to focus on securing its maritime territories, as well as the vital sea lanes that comprise the maritime dimension of the One Belt One Road/Maritime Silk Road trade system. While long range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles can target adversarial naval forces well beyond the coastline of mainland China, the island outposts being established in the South China Sea, maritime trade lanes and overseas bases that China is establishing along the Maritime Silk Road cannot be patrolled nor secured by missiles forces, nor long range aircraft flying from airbases in China. Static defenses placed along these maritime arteries and in the South China Sea are only one echelon of defense. One of the key strengths of naval power is related to the nature of the maritime environment: mobility. Small, fast carrier strike groups centered around a high-tech, potent, mission capable air wing can be effective in filling gaps in layers of defense, providing additional axis of attack, forcing an adversary to split their focus and assets, and providing a power projection capability that can strike at any point along the length and breadth of the Maritime Silk Road. These future CSGs have the potential of being a great asset if used correctly. Chinese carrier strike groups are not being designed to police the globe, and if constrained to missions that ensure the maritime security of China’s vital trade lanes and offshore territorial concerns from the East China Sea in the east to the Straits of Hormuz and Aden in the west, and not allowed to become a foreign policy baton as wielded by the United States for so long, they should prove to yet another valuable defensive tool.
Regardless of the many efforts of western mainstream media to downplay or disparage China’s significant achievements in the development of a small, yet ambitious aircraft carrier program, the facts speak for themselves. In roughly 25 years, and with no previous history in aircraft carrier aviation, China has fielded a modern aircraft carrier, built another, and put a regiment of carrier capable fighter aircraft into operational service. Unlike its peers in the carrier community, such as Britain, France and the United States whom cut their teeth in carrier aviation during the era of piston engine, propeller aircraft, China entered the club during the era of 4+ generation fighters. Mastering the science of aircraft carrier aviation operations is perhaps the most difficult of all modern military aviation endeavors. As China pushes ahead toward its first CATOBAR carrier, it will have to devote added energy, resources and determination to develop a larger cadre of naval aviators who can master CATOBAR take-off and landings.
China has used every means necessary to acquire, design, build and field modern fighter and strike aircraft, one of which is a dedicated aircraft carrier strike fighter. A number of additional aircraft are currently in various stages of development to fill the many roles that will be required, or at least be advantageous for the Type 002 (CV-18) CATOBAR carrier when it is launched between 2020 and 2021. The successful development of an EMALS system that can be accommodated on a carrier with a non-nuclear power generation source remains a large unknown. The United States has experienced some difficulty with the EMALS system incorporated in the Gerald R. Ford, which was to be expected with any new and complicated system. Massive amounts of power generation and power storage are required in the functioning of an EMALS. Although it is impossible to verify, China seems to have so far succeeded in this effort.
Perhaps ironically, the one area where China’s program is lacking is in the category of air combat experience. The aviators of the PLAAF and PLAN have not been engaged in conflict, nor skirmishes or actions of small scale intensity in recent decades. Even the small cadre of Russian naval aviators attached to the Admiral Kuznetsov were blooded in late 2016, while striking targets in Syria for several months. This short period of high intensity operations, with over 420 sorties flown, was not without incident, as two aircraft ( one SU-33 and one Mig-29KR) were lost due to technical failures (arresting gear malfunction). Needless to say, the Russian Navy has learned valuable lessons, and its air crews have gained much needed experience. The same cannot be said for the PLAN and its skilled aircrews. While a strong PLAN exists as a deterrent to conflict, it paradoxically suffers from lack of combat experience.
As to the question of why China is developing a credible aircraft carrier arm and how the nation will employ it, it is logical to deduce that such a powerful naval asset will not be used in a similar fashion as the U.S. Navy’s CSGs. China sees the aircraft carrier as a powerful force multiplier in an echeloned, multi-layered defense in depth, as well as a vital power projection tool that can both act as a powerful deterrent and as a means to respond to hostile actions that threaten to disrupt the maritime lines of communication and trade that will ensure China’s continued and future prosperity. In the years to come, China will most likely base two CSGs with the South Sea Fleet at Zhanjiang, or possibly even on Hainan Island, at the expanding Yulin naval base. An additional CSG will also most likely be based with the East Sea Fleet, either at Shanghai or Zhoushan. Estimating that this will occur by 2030, China will have no regional naval peers in the South China Sea nor the Indian Ocean.
The greatest unknown at this point, as China has proven that it is determined and capable to achieve its aim of fielding multiple CSGs by 2030, is when or if the United States will decide to stand in the way of these plans. Only an Indian Navy working with the U.S. will be able to confront the PLAN in the Indian Ocean with any hope of success, and the same is true for any regional power in Southeast or East Asia. This fact is glaringly apparent to all parties involved. Hopefully, as U.S. power wanes globally, a healthy balance of power can be realized in the Indian Ocean, and mutually beneficial economic arrangements and diplomatic reconciliations can be agreed upon to remedy many of the disputes in the South China Sea. Regardless of these speculations and hopes, one fact remains clear, Chinese aircraft carriers will soon be plying the waters of the southern and eastern hemispheres with a full complement of impressive and capable aircraft, piloted by skilled and dedicated aircrews.