On January 1st China’s first aircraft carrier (the Liaoning) and its escort group returned to base after 37 days at sea. A day later the Chinese Navy announced that Liaoning had successfully completed its sea trials. Liaoning was commissioned (accepted into service by the navy) in September 2012 but still to complete more sea trials before it was ready for regular service. Before commissioning Liaoning had performed well during over a year of sea trials. During that time Liaoning went to sea ten times. The longest trip was two weeks. All this was mainly to see if the ship was able to function reliably at sea. After commissioning Liaoning carried out 15 months of additional trials and preparations have been made for the first flight operations, which took place in late 2012. During the first year of sea trials some aircraft were spotted on the flight deck. This was apparently to make sure aircraft could be moved around the deck, and down to the hanger deck, without any problems.
In 2011 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. But the carrier will also be used to train Chinese officers and sailors to operate as a carrier task force as the Americans and some other Western navies have been doing for over 80 years.
To form a carrier task force the carrier needs escorts. For Liaoning this consisted of two Type 051C destroyers and two Type 054A frigates plus a supply ship. All this is similar to what the U.S. has long used, which is currently 3-4 destroyers, 1-2 frigates, an SSN (nuclear submarine), and a supply ship. Chinese SSNs are few and not very good, which is why China probably has not assigned one to their escort group.
During the final month of sea trials, held far out to sea in international waters China aggressively confronted American ships and aircraft that come close to the Liaoning task force. The worst incident occurred on December 5th when a 7,000 ton Chinese destroyer cut in front of a 10,000 ton American cruiser (the USS Cowpens) which was observing the new Chinese carrier from a distance of over 40 kilometers. The Chinese ship risked a collision as it moved to within a hundred meters of the U.S. cruiser. This sort of aggressiveness was experienced by American warships frequently during the Cold War when Russian warships would risk collision in what American sailors came to call "Chicken Of The Sea." For over a decade now the Chinese have been aggressively interfering with American intelligence gathering aircraft and ships in international waters off their coast. The U.S. does not back off. The final month of Liaoning sea trials were particularly important to the U.S. Navy because the Liaoning was operating as part of a task force on the high seas. There were some days of bad weather and how well the Chinese ships performed under these adverse conditions was a good indicator of how effective the Liaoning task force would be in combat. While the U.S. also had aircraft, satellites and submarines observing the Liaoning task force, it was also important to monitor it all from the surface and that’s where the Cowpens came in. While the Chinese tried to intimidate the Cowpens that didn’t work.
The Liaoning task force employed China’s latest warship designs in their first combat exercise similar to what the Americans have been doing for over 60 years. The escort vessels consisted of Type 51C destroyers, which are 7,100 ton ships optimized for anti-aircraft defense. Each carries 48 Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles (range 150 kilometers) in vertical launch tubes, plus eight C-803 anti-ship missiles (range 300 kilometers), one 100mm gun, two 30mm anti-missile autocannon, six torpedo tubes, and a helicopter. It has a crew of 290 and a top speed of 48 kilometers an hour. The Type 54A frigates are 4,300 ton ships with a top speed of 49 kilometers an hour. The crew of 165 operates a 76mm cannon, two 30mm multi-barrel anti-missile autocannon, eight C-803 anti-ship missiles, six anti-submarine torpedoes, 12 240mm anti-submarine rockets, 32 vertical launch cells containing anti-aircraft or anti-submarine missiles, and a helicopter. For both ships the radars, sonar, and electronics are all Chinese made.
As Japanese and South Korea have done, China appears to be following the American lead in destroyer design. The principal American destroyer is currently the Burke class. This is a design that is the culmination of over half a century of World War II and Cold War destroyer design experience. Even after the Burke was designed, in the 1980s, the design evolved. The first Burkes were 8,300 ton ships, while the latest ones, laden with more gear and smaller crews, are 10,000 ton ships (what heavy cruisers weighed in World War II). With a top speed of nearly 50 kilometers an hour, their main armament is 90 vertical launch tubes flush with the deck that can contain anti-aircraft, anti-ship, anti-missile, or cruise missiles. There is also a 127mm (5 inch) gun, two 20mm anti-missile autocannon, six torpedo tubes, and two helicopters. The Burkes were well thought out, sturdy, and they got the job done. They became irreplaceable, and thus this class of warships will last more than half a century.
China is using its new Type 903 replenishment ships for its most important missions, like the Liaoning escort group. The first of these 23,000 tons tanker/cargo ships appeared in 2004. The replenishment ship provides fuel, water, food, and other supplies to the task force it supports. The replenishment ship would go to local ports to restock its depleted stores of fuel, water, food, and other necessities. The Type 903 is similar to the twelve American T-AKE replenishment ships in service. These 40,000 ton ships service a much larger fleet than the four Chinese Type 903s and are part of a larger number of replenishment ships the United States uses. China needs more replenishment ships now because it is more frequently sending warships long distances, not just to the Somali coast but also far into the Pacific.
The last month of Liaoning trials was the first time China had ever sent a carrier task force out onto the high seas to train. It was a historic moment and the American didn’t want to miss it.