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A Hazy Shade Of Gray
by James Dunnigan
October 21, 2013

September 24, 2013: Despite recent photos from a Chinese shipyard showing a section of a new Chinese aircraft carrier under construction, a Chinese admiral recently confirmed that the one active Chinese aircraft carrier (the former Russian Kuznetsov class carriers rebuilt as the Chinese Liaoning) would spend the next two or three years just as a training ship. After that the Chinese Navy would decide, based on the Liaoning experience, how to proceed. Yet the evidence is pretty clear that the next carrier is under construction. Finishing the new carrier could take up to five years, and that gave the Chinese time to quickly implement many of the Liaoning lessons on the next carrier.

The Chinese are finding, as they had been warned, that there is a lot to learn before you become competent at operating an aircraft carrier. China also has the Russian experience to learn from. Russia began using carriers in the 1960s, but these were for helicopters and vertical takeoff jets. Building on that experience led to the Kuznetsovs in the 1980s. The Kuznetsovs were a formidable design and Russia still operates the original Kuznetsov. China has had dozens of naval officers going around the world to see how other nations handle aircraft carrier operations, and all the reports send the same message; it isn’t easy and takes a lot of time and effort to master.

The new Chinese carrier appears to be similar to the American Nimitz class ships (100,000 ton vessels using a catapult rather than a ski jump flight deck for launching aircraft). Large ships, including warships, are often built in sections and then the sections are welded and bolted together. Pictures of the section of what appears to be a carrier does not indicate the exact size of the new carrier, other than that it appears larger than the new Liaoning China commissioned at the end of 2012.

When the Liaoning entered service China was believed to be building the first of several locally designed aircraft carriers but the Chinese officially denied this. The only official announcements alluded to the need for two or three aircraft carriers in addition to the Liaoning. Construction of such large ships was only recently detected.

The Liaoning is a 65,000 ton, 305 meter (999 feet) long ship that spent over a year on sea trials. During that time Liaoning was at sea for about four months. This was all in preparation for flight operations that began in November 2012 and were a success, although the Chinese built J15 (a Su-27 variant) jet fighter is still being tweaked as it participates in continuing carrier operations. In late 2012, China first confirmed that the Liaoning will primarily be a training carrier. The Chinese apparently plan to station up to 24 jet fighters and 26 helicopters on the Liaoning and use the ship to train pilots and other specialists (like deck crew) for additional carriers. Meanwhile, the Liaoning will also be staffed and equipped as a combat ship as well, just in case.

The new Chinese “larger carrier” appears to be similar to the recently decommissioned American USS Enterprise (CVN 65). This was the first nuclear powered carrier and it served as the prototype for the subsequent Nimitz class. It’s unclear if the new Chinese carrier will be nuclear powered. The Enterprise was an expensive design, and only one was built (instead of a class of six). While a bit longer than the later Nimitz class, it was lighter (92,000 tons displacement, versus 100,000 tons). The Enterprise was commissioned in 1961, almost 40 years after the first U.S. carrier (the Langley) entered service in 1923. In the two decades after the Langley there were tremendous changes in carrier aviation. While the innovation slowed after World War II, major changes continued into the 1950s (jet aircraft, nuclear propelled carriers, SAMs). But in the ensuing half century there were no major innovation in basic carrier design. This has not been a problem because the carriers have proven useful, at least for the U.S. Navy (the only fleet to use such large carriers) and no one else built a force of these large carriers. Only the U.S. felt a constant need to get air power to any corner of the planet in a hurry. More importantly, no navy has been able to give battle to the U.S. carrier force since 1945. The Soviets built new anti-carrier weapons and made plans to use them, but that war never occurred. China is building carriers but is not seeking to confronting the U.S. but to intimidate its neighbors.

Liaoning is one of the two Kuznetsov class carriers that Russia began building in the 1980s. Originally the Kuznetsovs were to be 90,000 ton nuclear powered ships (the Ulanovsk class), similar to American Nimitz class carriers (complete with steam catapults). Instead, because of the high cost and the complexity of modern (American style) carriers, the Russians were forced to scale back their plans and ended up with 65,000 ton (full load) ships that lacked steam catapults and used a ski jump type flight deck instead. Nuclear power was dropped but the Kuznetsovs were still a formidable design. China may have bought or stolen details of the Ulanovsk class plans or are simply using the concept. Then again, the new carrier may simply be a scaled up Kuznetsov/ Liaoning. The Chinese are not discussing this publicly.

The Kuznetsovs originally carried a dozen navalized Su-27s (called Su-33s), 14 Ka-27PL anti-submarine helicopters, two electronic warfare helicopters, and two search and rescue helicopters. But the ship was built to carry as many as 36 Su-33s and 16 helicopters. The Kuznetsovs carry 2,500 tons of aviation fuel, allowing it to generate 500-1,000 aircraft and helicopter sorties. Crew size is 2,500 (or 3,000 with a full aircraft load). While the original Kuznetsov is in Russian service, the second ship, the Varyag, was launched but not completed, and work stopped in 1992. The Chinese bought the unfinished carrier in 1998, towed it to China, and spent over a decade completing it as the Liaoning.

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