By Logan Ma
On November 25th, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) successfully landed a J-15 jet fighter on the flight deck of the Liaoning, the PLAN’s first aircraft carrier. The act was the latest development in a decades long effort by the PLAN to develop an aircraft carrier to cement its blue-water aspirations, culminating in the transformation of an ex-Soviet aircraft carrier into the Liaoning.
The PLAN has had an interest in acquiring aircraft carriers since 1954, when Admiral Liu Huaqing enrolled at the Voroshilov Naval Academy in Leningrad under Admiral Sergei Gershkov. (Storey and Ji). When he returned to China in 1958, Liu advocated a two-stage evolvement of the PLAN. The goal of the first-stage was to enable the PLAN to defend China’s coastal regions as well as enforce its claims of sovereignty in Taiwan and the South China Sea. The second-stage called for the development of a blue-water navy that would allow the PLAN to project power into the Western Pacific (Storey and Ji). As Commander-in-Chief of the PLAN from 1982-1988 and Vice Chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission from 1989-1997, Liu oversaw the transformation of the PLAN into something much larger than expected.
Under Liu, China’s aircraft carrier program developed in earnest. Liu firmly believed that aircraft carriers were instrumental in realizing the goal of a blue-water navy and advocated tirelessly for the construction of a Chinese aircraft carrier up to his retirement in 1997 (Erickson and Wilson). Between 1985 and 2002, the Chinese purchased four decommissioned aircraft carriers, mostly through unofficial channels. In 1985, a Chinese scrapping company bought the aged Australian carrier HMAS Melbourne. Before it was dismantled, Chinese engineers were able to see how it was built and used what they learned to draw out plans for a light carrier (Storey and Ji). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese acquired three Soviet aircraft carriers. The Minsk, a forty thousand ton carrier, was sold to a Chinese company and in 2000, was transformed into a floating museum in Shenzhen (Storey and Ji). The Kiev, a ship of the same class, underwent a similar transformation, becoming a tourist attraction in Tianjin (Storey and Ji). Although these two ships were acquired through private channels, it is likely that the PLAN was somehow involved and that it gained new insights on aircraft carrier technology from these transactions.
The last of the ex-Soviet aircraft carriers to be purchased by the Chinese was the Kutzenov class Varyag, a 67,500-ton ship acquired in 1998. Unlike the Minsk and the Kiev, the Varyag was capable of carrying fixed-wing aircraft (Storey and Ji). Laid down in Ukranian shipyards in 1985, work on the ship was abandoned in 1992 after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Chong Lot Tourist and Amusement Agency, a company based in Hong Kong, bought the partially-completed ship for twenty million with the intention of towing the ship from Ukraine to China and transforming the hull into a floating casino in Macao (Storey and Ji). From the onset, there were signs that the PLAN was involved in the purchase. Investigations by Hong Kong media revealed that Chong Lot had links to the PLAN and the central government (Storey and Ji). When Turkish authorities prevented the hull from passing through the Bosphorus for fifteen months, the central government reportedly sent deputy foreign minister Yang Wenchang to directly intervene in the matter. The ship finally arrived in the Chinese port of Dalian in 2002. During this time, the owners continued to assert that the ship would be turned into a floating casino.
In May 2005, after three years of inactivity, a sudden change occurred. The Varyag was taken to dry docks and emerged a few months later painted in PLAN gray. In the years that followed, continued improvements and repairs dispelled notions that the carrier was to be used for its original intended purpose. In addition to the refurbishment of the Varyag, steps were taken to train carrier-based pilots. As early as 2008, the PLAN was testing landings on the runway of a land-based replica at the Wuhan Naval Research Institute (“China’s Aircraft Carrier: 58,500 tonnes of coincidence”). In 2009, the Brazilian defense minister at the time revealed that Brazil and China had reached an agreement to train PLAN personnel aboard the Brazilian aircraft carrier São Paulo (Hsiao). After years of speculation, the chief of the general staff of the Chinese military finally confirmed in 2011 that the PLAN was constructing an aircraft carrier from the hull of the Varyag (“China Aircraft Carrier Confirmed by General”). The ex-Varyag was re-commissioned the next year and rechristened Liaoning, allowing China to join the small circle of nations with aircraft carriers in their fleets.
What implications does the Liaoning have for the United States? With the advances made by the PLAN in its aircraft carrier program, some observers in the United States have expressed concern over the potential challenge it poses to American influence in the Pacific. The truth is that at the moment, the Liaoning poses no serious threat to American assets in the region. Its operations capabilities are severely limited relative to those of its American counterparts. At 67,500 tons, the Liaoning is no match for the Nimitz class supercarrier, let alone the new Ford class due to enter service in 2015 (“China’s Aircraft Carrier: 58,500 tonnes of coincidence”). In addition, the PLAN lacks the planes capable of operating from an aircraft carrier. The Shenyang J-15, the Chinese-variant of the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-based fighter jet, is still in developmental stages and would not be operational for some time.
Even if the PLAN does achieve the technical prerequisites required, a considerable amount of time would have to be devoted towards mastering the complicated nuances of carrier operations. It would take decades before a PLAN carrier battle group capable of matching the abilities of the 11 American carrier battle groups puts to sea. The Liaoningwill be unable to threaten American interests in the region. The ship is more of a symbol of national pride than a practical combat vessel and will most likely be relegated to diplomatic and training roles. In the short run, American military strategists should instead focus on a means of responding to China’s more threatening arsenal of access-denial weapons. These weapons—which include “carrier-killing” missiles, submarines, mines, anti-satellite capabilities and cyber terrorism capabilities—are designed to slow or prevent a superior military force from entering a conflict zone. In the long run, American military strategists should consider building a healthy, stable and transparent relationship with the goal of transforming the Chinese military into responsible actors in the maintenance of global peace.
“China’s Aircraft Carrier: 58,500 tonnes of coincidence.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper Limited, 26 Sept. 2012.
“China Aircraft Carrier Confirmed by General.” BBC. British Broadcasting Corporation, 8 June 2011. Web. 9 December 2012.
“China Moves to Project Air Power With Soviet Carrier Overhaul.” Bloomberg News. Bloomberg LP, 19 Oct. 2009. Web. 9 December 2012.
Erickson, Andrew S., Andrew R. Wilson. “China’s Aircraft Carrier Dilemma.” Naval War College Review 59.4 (2006). Defense Technical Information Center. PDF file. 9 December 2012.
Hsiao, Russell. “PLAN Officers to Train on Brazilian Aircraft Carrier.” China Brief 9.12 (2004). The Jamestown Foundation. Web. 9 December 2009.
Storey, Ian, You Ji. “China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions.” Naval War College Review 57.1 (2004). Defense Technical Information Center. PDF file. 9 December 2012.
Photo by Official Navy Page.