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China Faces The Big Challenge
by James Dunnigan
October 10, 2012

China recently commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. This 65,000 ton, 305 meter (999 feet) long ship apparently performed well during over a year of sea trials. During that time Liaoning went to sea ten times. The longest trip was two weeks. So far, the Liaoning has been at sea for about three months. All preparations have been made for flight operations, which do not appear to have taken place yet (except perhaps for helicopters). It's unclear when flight operations for jet fighters will take place.

The Liaoning has apparently performed well during these extended sea trials. Six months ago some aircraft were spotted on the flight deck. This was probably to make sure aircraft could be moved around the deck, and down to the hanger deck, without any problems. Last year China 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.

Five years ago the Chinese Navy Air Force began training carrier fighter pilots (or "aviators" as they are known in the navy). In the past Chinese navy fighter pilots went to Chinese Air Force fighter training schools, and then transferred to navy flight training schools to learn how to perform their specialized (over open water) missions. Now, operating from carriers, and performing landings and take-offs, has been added to the navy fighter pilot curriculum. The first class of carrier aviators has finished a four year training course at the Dalian Naval Academy. This included learning how to operate off a carrier, using a carrier deck mock up on land. Landing on a moving ship at sea is another matter. The Chinese have not done this yet but are expected to try it soon. The Russians warned China that it may take them a decade or more to develop the knowledge and skills needed to efficiently run an aircraft carrier. The Chinese are game and are slogging forward.

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, similar to American 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. The Kuznetsovs normally carry 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 sixteen 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 carried in 1998, towed it to China and spent over a decade completing it as the Liaoning.

China is believed to be building the first of several locally designed aircraft carriers but little is known of this project. The only official announcements have alluded to the need for two or three aircraft carriers, in addition to the Liaoning. Construction of such large ships has not yet been seen in any shipyard.


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