February 8, 2011; China has two aircraft carriers (Shi Lang and "Carrier F") under construction, with one going to sea by next year. With the ship designs fixed, attention turns to the aircraft, both the types and their organization and operation. Current Chinese practice is to base seagoing aircraft (helicopters) at land facilities, sending them to serve on ships that are going to sea as needed. It appears that China will do the same thing, at least initially, with their carriers. This is different from American practice, where the carrier air wings are assigned permanently (except when the carriers are out of action for long periods of maintenance). Same with helicopters assigned to smaller surface ships. Chinese air wings will be more independent, and less similar in their organization.
What aircraft are going to sea with the carriers is less certain. The main Chinese carrier fighter is a navalized version of the J-11 (an illegal clone of the Russian Su-27). China got one of the Russian navalized Su-27s (the Su-33) from Ukraine, and are stealing more technology to navalize their 30 ton J-11 as the J-11BH (formerly the J-15). These will not be ready before the Shi Lang puts to sea. Instead, it appears that navalized jet trainers will be used (the 9.8 ton JL-9, and possibly the more recent 9.5 ton JL-15).
China already has naval helicopters for their carriers. These include the Russian Ka-28 (submarine search) and Ka-31 (radar early warning) and Mi-8 (transports). China is still having problems designing and building naval helicopters that can match or surpass Russian models. So Russian choppers will continue in service for at least another decade.
The Shi Lang has a maximum capacity of 50 jets and 18 helicopters, but it appears that China will not be using these many on their carriers initially. The Russians never maxed out the air wing on these ships either. Moreover, the most common use of Chinese carriers in the first few years will be training and, on occasion, "showing the flag" (visiting foreign ports to, well, show off.) Both training and show-off missions, will probably involve a carrier air wing of eight jets and 9-10 helicopters (six ASW/Anti-Submarine Warfare, three AEW/radar early warning and one SAR/search and rescue.) Once the J-11BH is ready, there will be several years of training pilots and carrier deck crews to handle this larger aircraft. So it won't be until the 2020s before China is ready to send a carrier to sea with a militarily significant air wing. This will include J-11BH fighters J-10AH light bombers, as well as AEW, ASW and SAR helicopters.
The Shi Lang has been in the shipyards for nine years now, where China has been tinkering with this half finished Russian aircraft carrier. Three years ago, the ex-Soviet/Russian/Ukrainian Varyag, was renamed the Shi Lang and given the pennant number 83. Two years ago, China decided to go forward with building a carrier fleet. That accounts for the increased progress on the Shi Lang since then. In the last two years, the Shi Lang was placed into dry dock, where engines and other heavy equipment was installed. Topside, the radar mast was completed, and now there is a Chinese radar system being installed.
The Varyag is one of the 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 the 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 Kuznetsov class was still a formidable design. The 323 meter (thousand foot) long ship normally carries 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 meant to regularly carry 36 Su-33s and sixteen helicopters. The ship carries 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.) Only two ships of this class exist; the original Kuznetsov, which is in Russian service, and the Varyag.
The Chinese have been in touch with Russian naval construction firms, and may have purchased plans and technology for equipment installed in the Kuznetsov. Some Chinese leaders had quipped several years ago, about having a carrier by 2010 (this would have to be a refurbished Varyag), but it soon became clear that 2012 was more likely. Even that may be too soon, as the Chinese have been burned before when they tried to build new military technology in a hurry. The Chinese appear intent on getting it right the first time.
Three years ago, China announced that its first class of carrier aviators had begun training at the Dalian Naval Academy. The naval officers are undergoing a four year course of instruction to turn them into fighter pilots capable of operating off a carrier. China already has an airfield, in the shape of a carrier deck, built at an inland facility. The Russians have 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.