As I’m sure you all know by now, the formerly known Varyag Aircraft Carrier was commissioned into PLAN as Liaoning and given the Type 001 class AC with pennant number of 16. I haven’t spent as much time looking into this development, but it’s quite clear that there is a lot of excitement on Chinese military forum over Liaoning class. This news has already eclipsed the exciting unveiling of Shenyang AC’s 4th generation fighter jet (I’m using generation by Chinese standard) and the unveiling of the 052D class destroyers. The only news that has caused more stir in the recent years is the unveiling of J-20. On the English forum that I moderate, some of the fellow members have been waiting for 7 to 8 years for this moment. A few years ago, I had all but given up on Liaoning ever becoming a big part of PLAN’s blue water plans. This was even after Liaoning had been painted with PLAN colours in 2006. Now, it appears that Liaoning has a bigger role in PLAN than many people have expected.
For me, I haven’t been as excited about this development. I was quite excited when 054A and 056 came out. I was also excited when we saw that new mysterious large diesel submarine from WuChang shipyard in 2010. I was really excited when 052D came out. I couldn’t stop looking for more photos on it. I suppose I have already spent too much time looking at Liaoning from when it was first dragged to Dalian to when it was first painted to when it got the non-skid layers to when it was taken to dry docks to when work started on Island to when it made its first sea trials. The more exciting moments will still come in the future when we see J-15s take off and land on it. And after that, it will be interesting to see how PLAN intends to use this training carrier. I read a really great article by Andrew Erickson today, where he talked about how Liaoning will not be that useful in the immediate time facing US or Japan, but could be quite useful in South China Sea. When Liu Huaqing first envisioned a carrier in PLAN, he wanted a medium sized carrier that PLAN can use to dominate South China Sea rather than a super carrier to compete against USN. Of course, this was also back in the late 80s when PLAN had those skirmishes with Vietnam where it had no air cover against Vietnam’s Su-22s. Even as PLAN is still learning carrier op in these early years, Liaoning could make quite a difference in any South China Sea scenarios.
When I was going through articles on the commissioning of Liaoning, I think one of the more interesting parts is where someone from PLAN stated that this shows China can build a carrier. While he conceded the hull was built in Russia, he stated strongly that everything inside the ship and on the ship was designed and built in China. I would imagine that whatever the Russians are doing for the INS Vikramaditya is what China had to do for the former Varyag. It certainly explains why they took this many years to finally launch the ship. Thinking about that, it’s interested that China has managed to restore and modernize a larger ship faster than the Russians despite having to learn the entire structure of the ship from scratch. Reading an interviewed piece from the ship, it certainly sounded like the interior of the ship has been completely changed to the modern PLAN standards. It was stated to have a 24 hours cafeteria with two bars (one loud and one quiet). It was has a supermarket, a post office, a gym (probably also basketball court), a laundromart and a garbage treatment station. Sailors can communicate with family at home through computers and can even use their cell phones. I would imagine the condition to be similar to those pictures we’ve seen of the interiors of the No. 88 life style ship and the Type 071 LPD. PLAN has made a serious effort in the recent years to improve the living conditions of these newer ships as they strive to become blue water navy. So far, we’ve already seen the latest of Chinese sensors and close in weapon systems installed on Liaoning. We’ve also seen the living quarters of the sailors revamped and modernized to be similar to other new PLAN ships. I can only imagine that the navigation control, command area and carrier operations control rooms will also be upgraded to the latest and best PLAN could offer. Liaoning should have much more modern weapon systems on board than any previously Russia/Soviet built carriers. It should also be much more powerful than the refitted and modernized Vikramaditya. Once J-15 joins service, it should also theoretically be much more advanced and capable than any previous naval aircraft that operated off a Russia/Soviet built carrier. Now that they have the hardware that the Soviet navy never had, the much longer process of developing the software (training people and pilots for carrier ops) is about to start.
A while ago, I was asked about when I think a Chinese carrier will enter Persian Gulf. And I think this is a good place to put what I thought at that time. Eventually, a China carrier will leave the safety of the South China Sea and then the second chain of islands. It will move past Malacca straits to protect its energy routes from Africa and the Persian Gulf. I have the following thoughts for when that will happen:
First, we have to think about economics and political situation in China. If we have a serious political or economic problem in China, that would slow down all military procurement. So, let’s for the sake of argument, assume that this will not be an issue; and the navy will continue to see 10% increase in its budget every year.
Secondly, China doesn’t currently have any real oversea base. And I think they would need oversea base close to the Persian Gulf first before they can really enter into Persian Gulf. They already have some supply points or network of places to support their current operations in the Gulf of Aden. Good article to read is here. In order for China to enter the Persian Gulf, I’d imagine it would need an oversea base close to the Persian Gulf. The location talked about so far are Pakistan, Seychelles, Burma, Sri Lanka and any number of African countries friendly to China. This won’t happen right away, but I think it will eventually happen by the end of this decade. I think that Gwadar, Pakistan and somewhere in Burma probably make the most sense. In the former case, that base could be protected by Pakistan army and air force. In the latter case, Burma would also be within range of Chinese air force (with refueling).
Third, what would be the carrier entering into the Persian Gulf? I can’t imagine it will be Liaoning, which should serve in the role I mentioned up top. Aside from that, Liaoning is still using steam turbines. If we look at all of the recent PLAN deployments, there have been very few long range ones using steam turbines. Even now, none of the Sov destroyers have been to Gulf of Aden. So, that means it would have to be a domestically built carrier. If the first carrier is under construction in JN shipyard right now as I’ve been led to believe, the earliest it would enter service is toward the end of this decade.
After that, we have to look at the rest of the carrier group. The current generation of AAW and ASW ships (052C/D and 054A) is sufficient to escort something like Liaoning. The first domestic carriers will be expected to make longer deployments, which would require the next generation of escorts. They would also need something like 095, because the current nuclear subs are way too noisy. Even 095 is still expected to be at least one generation behind Virginia class, so they would probably need something that’s a generation better (like a 097 class). They would need larger AAW and ASW ships that have the propulsion to keep up with the carrier. Aside from the 097 class, everything else (including a new generation of AORs) should already be commissioned by the time the first domestic carrier is ready, so escorts will not be a limiting factor.
The part that will slow things down is the development of the air wing and learning of carrier operations. The first generation of air wing will probably achieve IOC by 2015. By then, the J-15 fighter jet, JJ-9 trainer and Z-8 helicopters should have had some experience on takeoff and landing on Liaoning. For PLAN to feel comfortable sending its carrier into the Persian Gulf and keep it there, it will probably want the second generation of naval air wing. It will probably comprise of a naval version of the new SAC fighter jet, Z-8/Z-15 helicopters for ASW/SAR and other missions, different variants of naval flanker playing the role of E/FA-18E/F/G/H, Y-7 AEW and next generation of naval trainer. Now, most of this is already in development, so optimistically speaking they will probably achieve IOC by 2025. And then, PLAN would probably like to operate it a couple of years before giving it an extensive deployment to Persian Gulf. So, I think it would take until the end of the next decade before PLAN can make a meaningful entrance. By then, they would have almost 2 decades of carrier operations and multiple aircraft carriers.