China's aircraft carrier successfully launches its first jet fighters

China's aircraft carrier has launched and landed her first jet fighters, as shown in photos and videos released over the weekend of 24 November by Beijing's state media.

The milestone comes 14 years after the communist state acquired the derelict flattop Varyag from Ukraine, and nearly 18 months after the refurbished, rechristened Liaoning set sail from northern China.

With the commencement of fixed-wing flight operations on 23 November, China joins an exclusive club of just five other nations -- the US, Russia, France, India and Brazil -- that operate full-size carriers with fixed-wing planes.

Liaoning's first take-offs and landings represent an undeniable triumph for China's fast-growing navy. But Beijing still has a long way to go in learning how to use its new flattop and her jets.

China's first carrier-borne fighter is the J-15 Flying Shark, a reverse-engineered version of Russia's 1980s-vintage Su-33, enhanced with new avionics.

Roughly the size and performance of the US Navy's now-retired F-14, the J-15 is theoretically capable of air-to-air and ground-strike missions, though it remains in development and only a handful have been built. "If properly equipped, supported, and employed -- and these are significant 'ifs' -- the J-15 could affect the regional military balance substantially," analysts Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson wrote.

As Liaoning lacks steam catapults, her planes must launch on their own power. That means they can carry only modest weapons and fuel loads on takeoff -- a potentially serious limitation if the Chinese navy ever goes to war. For that reason Information Dissemination analyst "Feng" is almost dismissive. The J-15, he wrote, "is not a game-changer in any way."

The best remedy to the current limitations is for China to develop a carrier-launched aerial tanker that can top off the J-15's tanks, or to build a brand-new carrier with catapults. There is no evidence of the former, and in September Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun threw cold water on rumours of a second carrier in production. "Such reports are inaccurate," he said.

The J-15 is not the only carrier-based plane in development in China. Helicopters are already flying from Liaoning's deck, and the country's various state-owned aviation companies are also working on a navalised jet trainer and, reportedly, a radar plane similar to the US E-2.

Less clear is whether China intends to send its new J-31 stealth fighter to sea. The radar-evading prototype, which first appeared in September, bears some signs of carrier-compatibility, including the twin nose wheels typical of naval planes.

To test the J-15 and prepare the initial cadre of naval pilots, Beijing built a mock carrier flight deck -- complete with an elevated "ski ramp" -- at a flight test facility in central China. The J-15 began flying from this simulated ship more than two years ago.

It can take years to raise up qualified naval aviators, and despite the head start on land, it's likely that for the foreseeable future Liaoning will be focused on basic training tasks, preventing her from devoting much time on frontline deployments. The US Navy solves this problem by possessing no fewer than 10 or 11 full-size carriers at a time. So while one carrier is helping train new pilots and others are in maintenance, the balance of the fleet is available for combat missions. China may never have enough flattops to allow this kind of flexibility.

Beside the ship herself, planes form just one part of China's first carrier battle group. To sail and fight far from home, Liaoning will need destroyers and submarines as escorts plus supply ships to keep her fuel and stores topped off.

To that end Beijing has poured billions of pounds into a new class of fast, nuclear-powered submarine and a new large destroyer type thought to be similar to the US Aegis vessels.

To prepare its fleet of supply ships for high-intensity, open-ocean operations, the Chinese navy has deployed destroyers and support vessels thousands of miles away to the East African coast as part of international counter-piracy patrols. "China is in the process of developing a limited out-of-area operational capability," analysts Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson noted.

If history is any judge, Liaoning's biggest problems will be below the flight deck. Though heavily refurbished, China's carrier is still 1980s-vintage Russian technology deep down -- and that bodes poorly for her long-term readiness.

Liaoning's Russian sister ship Kuznetsof has had so many problems with her engines and other systems that she has made only a handful of deployments in her two decades of frontline service. India bought a smaller, former Russian carrier of roughly the same vintage as Liaoning and has had to push back the vessel's debut by five years owing to engine malfunctions.

Carrier Pilot Rock Star
Dai Mingmeng, the first pilot to complete an arrested landing on Liaoning, became an instant celebrity in China. State media declared his accomplishment "more difficult than an astronaut's."

The celebration of Dai's landing demonstrates one of the major reasons why Beijing built a carrier in the first place. Outnumbered and outgunned by the more numerous flattops of the US and allied fleets, Liaoning is not really meant to fight for control of the seas. Rather, she is in large part a symbol of national might -- much like China's space programme is. "National pride has less to do with a vessel's actual capabilities than with its intangible meaning to the country as a representation of its status," analyst Felix Chang wrote.

Video: China Central Television


Written by David Axe
Edited by David Cornish
Chinese state media


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