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China Seeks A Nimitz Moment
by James Dunnigan
May 16, 2013

In China, government controlled media recently carried comments by a senior admiral in which the construction of a second carrier (as rumored, in a yard near Shanghai) was denied, but it was confirmed that a second, larger carrier was in the planning stage. It would make sense that as much experience as possible be gained from the first carrier (the Liaoning) first before finalizing the design of the second one.

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 six months ago and were a success, although the Chinese built J15 (an Su-27 variant) jet fighter is still being tweaked as it participates in these carrier 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 that are to be built. Meanwhile the Liaoning will also be staffed and equipped as a combat ship as well.

A new Chinese “larger carrier” means something like 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. 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 Langley entered service (1923). In the two decades after the Langley, the first U.S. carrier, went to sea, 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 has been 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 has maintained a force of these large carriers. Only the U.S. has 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 committed to having a lot of them against the U.S. but to intimidate its neighbors.

In any event, many naval planners worry that the next war will find carriers coming off second best to nuclear submarines and missiles. As in the past, we'll never know unless there's a war to test any new theories about how you fight aircraft carriers. Thus it makes sense for the Chinese to follow the American example and build clones of American carriers. In the last half century there has been a lot written about the Enterprise and the Nimitz class ships, along with lots of photos and videos as well. It would make sense to the Chinese to do an updated Nimitz for their first class of carriers because so much is known about them.

Meanwhile, China has built a carrier pilot training program, along with schools for the many other specialists required to make a carrier work. It was rather surprising to Westerners that China managed to get jet aircraft operating from their new aircraft carrier (the Liaoning) just two months after the ship was commissioned (on September 25th). In large part that was because the Chinese put a lot of effort into preparation. Training of carrier pilots began nearly a decade earlier, but perhaps the smartest move the Chinese made was to arrange for Brazil to have its carrier sailors show the Chinese how it’s done. This was particularly important in the case of how the deck sailors on a carrier operate to get aircraft ready for takeoffs and how the air control specialists in the carrier “island” handle landings. While Russian carrier expertise was for sale, the Chinese wanted to learn how Western navies did this, since carrier operations were invented in the West a century ago. If the next class of Chinese carrier will be based on Western designs this would be the way to go.

Four years ago Brazil agreed to this deal so that Chinese sailors could learn carrier operating skills on the Brazilian Navy's carrier, the "Sao Paulo." It was 13 years ago that Brazil bought the 32,000 ton French aircraft carrier Foch (which was still in service) for $12 million, updated it, and renamed it "Sao Paolo." The navy has not been able to get much cash out of the government to further refurbish the 51 year old Sao Polo, and apparently the Chinese deal will change that.

The 33,000 ton "Sao Paolo" was headed for decommissioning and has been used mainly to train carrier pilots when Bazil bought it. The "Sao Paolo" entered service in 2000, and the Brazilians retired the 20,000 ton "Minas Gerais", a World War II era (British) Colossus Class carrier, a year later (after 40 years of service). So the Brazilians have a long tradition of carrier operations and sufficient experienced carrier sailors to teach the Chinese some useful things. Brazil has long been the only South American nation to operate a carrier. The Sao Polo has a crew of 1,900 and was designed to carry 35 warplanes (smaller, older models like the A-4) and four helicopters. This load can vary depending on aircraft type.

Six 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.

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