October 1, 2014:
On September 25th China’s first aircraft carrier (the Liaoning) completed five months of shipyard level maintenance, refurbishment and repairs. This came after three years of frequent trips to sea for training and testing. All this time at sea apparently produced a long list of things needing to be fixed, modified or replaced. Thus the long visit in the shipyard. It was also revealed what the carrier’s air wing would eventually consist of. There will be twelve helicopters (four Z-18J early warning, six Z-18F anti-submarine and two Z-9C search and rescue) and 24 J-15 jet fighters (navalized Su-27s). None of these aircraft are available yet to complete the Liaoning air group. The Z-18F is the first Chinese made anti-submarine helicopter that works (at least on paper). It is described as a 13 ton naval helicopter that carries a dipping sonar, 32 sonobuoys and up to four light (235 kg/517 pound) anti-submarine torpedoes. The Z-18F is too heavy for most Chinese warships and will be used on Chinese carriers and large amphibious ships (that look like small carriers). The Z-18F appears to be a major upgrade to the earlier Z-8F, which was not acceptable. The Z-18J is equipped with a radar that can spot aircraft out to 150 kilometers. The Z-9 is four ton helicopter with a two ton payload. China has built over 200 of the Z-9s and many have been armed (with twin 23mm cannon, torpedoes, anti-tank missiles and air-to-air missiles.) The Z-9D, armed with four TL-10 missiles, while the Z-9EC simply has anti-submarine equipment installed instead. The Z-9C is an unarmed version of the Z-9EC. Both the Z-18 and Z-9 are based on French helicopters that China has long produced under license.
For most of the last decade China has been developing the J-15, which is a carrier version of the Russian Su-27. There is already a Russian version of this, called the Su-33. Russia refused to sell Su-33s to China when it was noted that China was making illegal copies of the Su-27 (as the J-11) and did not want to place a big order for Su-33s but only wanted two, for "evaluation." China eventually got a Su-33 from Ukraine in 2001. Ukraine had inherited some Su-33s when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The first production models of the J-15 entered service in 2013 and it may take several years for the Liaoning to get its full complement of 24.
Liaoning completed its sea trials on January 1st 2014 after it returned to base with its escort group after 37 days at sea. This came 16 months after Liaoning was commissioned (accepted into service by the navy) in September 2012. At that time China announced that there would be more sea trials before Liaoning was ready for regular service. Before commissioning Liaoning had performed well during over a year of pre-commissioning 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 months of additional trials and preparations for the first flight operations, which took place in late 2012.
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 carrier in 1998, towed it to China and spent over a decade completing it as the Liaoning.
In 2011 China confirmed that the Liaoning will primarily be a training carrie 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. That led to the formation of the first Chinese carrier task force in late 2013. This was essential because a 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.