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China Prepares To Replace Carrier Pilots With Software
by James Dunnigan
December 12, 2012

A Chinese aviator, flying a Chinese made J-15 fighter, made the first landing and takeoff from a Chinese aircraft carrier just two months after the ship was commissioned (on September 25th). The first Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning is a 65,000 ton, 305 meter (999 feet) long ship that had 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. 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 and use the ship to train pilots and other specialists for four or more additional carriers.

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 at sea 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 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. The first landing and takeoff was apparently carried out in calm seas. It is a lot more difficult in rough weather (when the carrier is moving up and down and sideways a lot) and at night. The latter, called “night traps”, is considered the most difficult task any aviator can carry out, especially in rough weather.

Meanwhile the U.S. Navy, which has had aircraft operating from carriers for nearly a century, is seeking another way to deal with carrier operations. To this end, last year the navy conducted a successful test of the X-47B UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle) landing software. This was done by having an F-18D use the software to make a completely automated landing on a carrier. The two pilots in the F-18 did not touch the controls but were there in case something went wrong with the software. The navy plans to have an X-47B make a carrier landing and takeoff within a year.

The X-47B made its first flight two years ago. It was four years ago that the navy rolled out its first combat UAV, the 15 ton X-47B. This pilotless aircraft has a wingspan of 20 meters (62 feet) whose outer 5 meter (15 foot) portions fold up to save space on the carrier. The X-47B carries a two ton payload and will be able to stay in the air for twelve hours. The U.S. is far ahead of other nations in UCAV development, and this is energizing activity in Russia, Europe, and China to develop similar aircraft. The U.S. Department of Defense wants the new UAV combat aircraft in service by the end of the decade, some twenty years ahead of a schedule that was planned in the 1990s. The F-35 is expected to cease production in 2034, more than a decade after the first combat UAVs, that can match F-35 performance, enter service.

It's not just the Americans that are going in this direction. Two European consortiums are building competing designs for armed UAVs. These UAVs would not enter service until late in the next decade. It's similar to the U.S. X-45 and X-47 combat UAVs, although intended more for combat support jobs performed by the American Reaper (recon and light strike duties). There are several European combat UAV projects. Russia and China announced that they were working on several similar designs.

Over the last few years, the U.S. Department of Defense decided that the air force and navy be allowed to develop combat UAVs to suit their particular needs. The X-45 was meant mainly for those really dangerous bombing and SEAD missions. But the Pentagon finally got hip to the fact that the UCAV developers were coming up with an aircraft that could replace all current fighter-bombers. This was partly because of the success of the X-45 in rapidly reaching its development goals and the real-world success of the Predator (in finding, and attacking, targets) and Global Hawk (in finding stuff after flying half way around the world by itself).

The U.S. Navy expects UAVs to replace most manned aircraft on carriers and the Chinese are aware of that. So the age of manned aircraft operating from Chinese carriers may be a short one. Chinese engineers are well aware of automatic pilot software and how it works. Now they will have feedback from Chinese carrier pilots and be able to do what the Americans have done.

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