China's aircraft carriers have a boatload of glaring weaknesses — but the next carrier could be a 'huge step forward'

Liaoning, China's first aircraft carrier

  • China has one „combat ready“ aircraft carrier, another one undergoing preparation for service, and another one still in development.
  • The Liaoning, an old Soviet heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser refitted to become China’s first aircraft carrier, and the Type 001A, China’s first indigenously-produced aircraft carrier, are both limited in their combat capabilities due to several glaring weaknesses.
  • Striving to enhance the power of its carrier fleet, China is trying to overcome problems with its engines, launch system, pilots, carrier-based fighters, and knowledge of carrier operations.
  • China has a third carrier in the works, and it is expected to be a „huge step forward“ for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, as it may be a flattop that begins to close the technology gap between China and its main competitor.

The capabilities of China’s current carrier force are severely limited by several serious weaknesses, making it vastly inferior to the US Navy, but the one it has in the works is where the world could start to see the Chinese navy closing the gap with its primary competitor.

China only has one aircraft carrier — the Type 001 Liaoning — in service. But that carrier, known as the sister ship of Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, recognized as one of the worst carrier’s in the world, is „not very impressive,“ said Matthew Funaiole, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Liaoning, China's first aircraft carrier, sails into Hong Kong for a port call

Originally a Soviet „heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser,“ China obtained the vessel from the Ukraine under questionable circumstances in the late 1990s, upgraded and refitted it domestically over the next decade, and officially commissioned it into the People’s Liberation Army Navy in 2012.

China declared the carrier combat ready in November 2016, according to a CSIS China Power Project report. While the ship has participated in and led live-fire exercises, it primarily serves as a training vessel.

„For what the Liaoning is, I think it’s pretty good at its job,“ Funaiole said. „They purchased it, they reverse engineered it, they used it to design their second aircraft carrier, and now they are using it as a training vessel to sort out carrier operations, figure out how to integrate it into the fleet, and determine what kind of supporting vessels they need to put with the carrier for their mission.“

China's first domestically developed aircraft carrier, the Type 001A, is seen at a port in Dalian

China launched a second carrier, the Type 001A, earlier this year. That ship, similar to its predecessor, is „improved in some places,“ Funaiole said, „It has a newer radar, it’s a little bit bigger, the flight deck is a little bit bigger, the island is a bit smaller, so they have more space.“

„It definitely has some technology upgrades on it,“ he added.

There’s also a third carrier — the Type 002 — in the works, and while it may be a significant step up, for now, China’s carrier force faces several glaring weaknesses that limit its capabilities.

Power and propulsion

„They have such serious deficiencies with their engines, and this is a historic problem for China, not just for their ships but for their airplanes as well,“ Funaiole said, adding that it was the one thing preventing the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter jet from becoming a true fifth-generation aircraft.

Unlike US aircraft carriers, which are powered by onboard nuclear reactors, China’s Liaoning and Type 001A carriers are both diesel-powered ships. The Type 002 will likely be diesel as well, seeing that China has yet to overcome the development hurdles required to build a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

„That’s going to be the biggest challenge for China,“ Funaiole said. „Trying to figure out how to get a nuclear-powered reactor on the ship.“ 

The diesel-fueled steam turbine power plants are less efficient and reduce the speed and service life of the carrier, according to Geopolitical Futures. The Liaoning is believed to have a top speed of roughly 20 knots.

Aircraft launch system

Both the Liaoning and China’s first domestically-built aircraft carrier use ski jump-assisted short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) launch systems, which are less effective than steam or electromagnetic catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) launch systems like those used and being developed by the US and French navies.

For example, while the Nimitz-class supercarrier USS Ronald Reagan can launch an aircraft with a maximum weight of roughly 100,000 pounds, an aircraft taking off from the Liaoning would be significantly limited, perhaps to as little as 60,000 pounds. That means less fuel, fewer armaments, and reduced combat capability.

STOBAR systems, while having the benefit of being simple technology with few moving parts, also put greater strain on the aircraft and tend to result in reductions in operational range, payload size, and ultimately the number of flights the onboard aircraft can fly.


„They don’t have a whole lot of pilots. Not a lot of capacity in that area,“ Funaiole said, adding that Chinese pilots largely lack the ability to take off and land at night, a skill necessary for advanced carrier combat capability.

The Chinese state media outlet Global Times heralded what appeared to be the Liaoning’s first successful completion of a nighttime take-off and landing mission in May.

China is believed to have only one or two dozen pilots with training suitable for carrier operations, and training has been costly over the years, not just in terms of damaged or destroyed planes, but lost lives as well.

Two test pilots of the squadron sacrificed their lives during“ flight testing for the Liaoning’s carrier-based Shenyang J-15 „Flying Shark“ fighter jets, the China Daily reported back in 2014. Another pilot was killed in a training accident in 2016, the South China Morning Post reported at the time.

Chinese state-run broadcaster CCTV revealed earlier this year that while take-off can be a challenge, landing on the Liaoning requires „a little bit luck plus a strong body and mind,“ according to a report from the Asia Times.

According to CSIS, training American pilots to master the dangerous tasks of taking off and landing on a carrier required around four decades and cost thousands of lives and aircraft. China has the benefit of learning from others, but the challenge ahead is no easy task for the carrier-based pilots.

See the rest of the story at Business Insider
Source: Business insider

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