This is clearly an impressive development, and shows that China has now proven itself capable of something that only the Navies of Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Russia, India, Thailand, the UK and US have previously done – namely land a jet at sea.
Does this mean though that the maritime balance of power in Asia has altered, and that the Chinese are suddenly a more potent force? Look at some of the hype on the internet and you’ll see portents of doom, with people declaring that these landings somehow make the Chinese Navy immensely capable and that the USN and RN and all other navies are somehow irrelevant.
A more balanced view is that actually this is a tiny step on a very long road towards generating a proper carrier capability. What we have seen demonstrated thus far is that the Liaoning is capable of conducting carrier trials for aircraft which didn’t appear to be carrying any weapons, and which were probably conducted in very favourable weather conditions. So, its an achievement, but not a declaration of full operational capability.
China has a long road to march down before they can truly call themselves a carrier power. The next steps ahead of them will include working up the vessel to operate aircraft indigenously – in other words embarking an air group and over time getting used to being able to operate, repair and generate aircraft for missions. This is not an easy task, and as the Royal Navy has found, losing the ability to practise working on fixed wing carriers means without support from the USN, the skills fade will rapidly erode the ability to recover this capability with the CVF entry into service. So, China will probably have to spend several years just getting used to operating aircraft at sea, and that’s before you consider the challenges of carrying out a mission.
To employ the carrier operationally, the Chinese will have to work up to having the ability to generate aircraft, send them on missions such as ground support or fleet air defence, and then recover successfully. This requires a lot of investment and training in a range of areas, and also the creation of a cadre of qualified pilots. Again, its not impossible to do, but it will take time. Even putting an airgroup to sea does not mean a vessel is actually combat ready – one could make a credible argument that the Admiral Kuznetzov, the Russian aircraft carrier has never actually achieved proper combat readiness (certainly her deployments are so irregular and short, it is hard to see her as a credible operational unit).
One of the challenges facing the RN at the point when CVF enters service will be taking the platform, integrating the airgroup and then turning this into a fully operational asset. This takes time, skills and training, and cannot be achieved through shortcuts. You have to merge in multiple aviation disciplines, including air to ground strikes, air defence, AEW, ASW and so on, and then be able to manage the battle in a manner which means these are used to full advantage. Its not just a case of watching Top Gun, taking off in a jet and then blasting bad guys out the sky. The Chinese Navy has got to achieve all of this if it wants to put a fully operational carrier to sea – and this takes a long time to learn.
Additional to the actual operation of the carrier, China also has to work up a proper battle group, not just in the sense of platforms sailing in close proximity to the carrier, but platforms which are properly integrated and able to collectively fight together. This needs to be supported by a chain of supply ships, capable of not only supporting up close with tanking and replenishment at sea, but also a longer logistics chain able to ensure spare parts can be sent to wherever the carrier will deploy. The Chinese are expanding their navy rapidly, and its going to take a lot of effort to generate the skills and experience required to run a proper carrier battle group. Again, this takes time and effort and a lot of skill to pull off. In the entire world, arguably only the USN can field a proper carrier battle group and its taken them decades of constant practise to get it right.
The Chinese have not only got to adapt to the challenges of integrating hulls into a coherent and operational force, but they have also got to adapt to thinking in a ‘blue water’ manner. Historically China has always been a ‘brown water navy’ operating in the littoral environment, and rarely at sea for more than a day or two. The notion of long deployments far from home, outside of a couple of training ships, has never really happened. The Chinese Navy has invested heavily in laundry equipment in recent years (e.g washing machines) to fit to their vessels - a small thing, but something that says a lot. A truly seagoing navy, which has a bluewater mentality regards the ability to keep crews functional at sea as an inherent part of a ships design. The Chinese have regarded their navy as far more coastal in nature, not requiring the same level of personnel support or comfort. The gradual move by China into deploying their Navy on a more frequent basis, and further away from home, is starting to shift this mentality, but it takes time to bring about change.
It is all very well having visions of Chinese aircraft carriers operating in the Atlantic Ocean, deploying airpower, but this is in fact at variance with established pattern of Chinese naval operations. It is hard to see, at least for the next 10-15 years, any major deployment by the Chinese Navy outside of its traditional area of operations, which will feature carriers deployed in a manner that the Western navies would recognise. Instead it is likely that we will see smaller deployments, possibly the odd training deployment of a carrier, but a series of smaller ‘baby steps’ as the Chinese Navy seeks to gain not only practical operational experience, but also changes its mentality into a more blue water focused force.
Realistically we are looking at a much longer period of time before the Chinese Navy becomes a credible carrier power, and even then it is unlikely to become a power in the same way as the West would recognise it. The true mark of a ‘proper’ aircraft carrier operating nation is probably the ability to sustain a deployment of airpower, at distance from the homeland, working as part of an integrated battlegroup, able to deploy the full range of air operations on a 24/7 basis, and be relieved on a sustainable basis by a similar capability.
It is unlikely that any nation other than the US could do this for the next 10 years. It is hard to see China being able to simultaneously grow the equipment, skills, training and mindset needed to be a full time carrier power for at least 20-30 years. It may not even happen at all, particularly if Chinese doctrine only sees the carrier as being a platform for use in local waters.
So, the best conclusion to draw about this news is that China has started down the path to operating a carrier, but that it will be many years before it acquires a proper carrier capability, and even longer before this poses a credible threat to other first rate navies.