The Chinese would have preferred catapults—they have been experimenting with steam catapults at a shore station for some time. Presumably they will equip their next class of carriers—the first of which may already be under construction at Shanghai—with catapults. Besides the value of increased payload, catapults can launch other aircraft types, including airborne early warning airplanes like the U.S. E-2C/D Hawkeye. Without catapults, a carrier can operate early warning helicopters like the Merlins that will be on board the two new British carriers. The Russians offer such a helicopter, the Kamov Ka-31 “Helix,” which they are selling to China and to India. Generally, an early warning helicopter is inferior to an airplane like a Hawkeye in altitude performance (which affects radar range) and endurance. It is also much slower, which means it cannot effectively support strike aircraft far from the ship. The Chinese already have exhibited a mock-up that resembles the Hawkeye, and they have removed the ski-jump from the mock-up carrier they use for carrier systems testing and development at Wuhan.
Some reports put the number of J-15 fighters the new ship can carry as high as 36, but 24 J-15s and 12 antisubmarine helicopters is probably a realistic estimate of what she and the Liaoning will carry. The hangar on board the new ship reportedly can accommodate as many as 50 aircraft. Actual capacity depends on how the ship is operated. U.S. Navy practice generally is to keep about two-thirds of a carrier’s aircraft on deck. True capacity, then, will be a matter of how the Chinese learn to operate their carriers.
Reportedly the new ship is part of a program approved by the Chinese Central Military Committee in 2013 calling for two Project 001A carriers (Liaoning is Project 001) by 2020. A $9 billion contract was let to the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation. The ship still under construction is, then, the second in the class. One report credits her with a 90-meter (295-foot) catapult, and there is speculation that it might be located in the ship’s waist specifically to launch low-performance aircraft. The modification at Wuhan suggests something more conventional, with catapults forward.
The Chinese carrier program may have been approved at a high level as early as March 1987. It was understood that their navy had a great deal to learn, and reportedly they began shopping for a carrier design. The collapse of the Soviet Union provided a unique opportunity in the form of the nearly complete Varyag, left in limbo at Nikolaev Shipyard on the Black Sea in the newly independent Ukraine.
China bought the Varyag in 1998 under cover of a bogus casino operator in Macau. The ploy was plausible because two former Kiev-class carriers had been purchased and turned into Chinese theme parks. The ruse seems to have been intended to justify Turkish agreement to allow the ship to pass through the Turkish Straits. For several years it appeared that Varyag had been left derelict by the apparent collapse of the casino deal. Presumably internal work was proceeding, as was design work.
Even in 1998, there were strong rumors that the Chinese were buying Varyag as a carrier, the deal having been funded by a South China Sea war chest. If the rumors were true, the project initially was justified by the need to extend Chinese sea power beyond the range of land-based aircraft. In recent years, Chinese naval spokesmen have justified naval expansion not so much by the need to defend China itself but by the more Mahanian logic that China depends heavily on overseas resources, such as oil, and its access must be ensured. Maritime security in the Indian Ocean and the Malacca Strait is a vital Chinese interest.
When the Chinese bought the Varyag, reportedly they also bought the ship’s plans. At the time, the Russian Northern Design Bureau was providing preliminary designs for Chinese missile destroyers, as indicated in a company history it published. It seems likely that the data package included assistance by those who had designed Varyag in the first place. The main issue was probably structural design; a carrier is quite different from a surface combatant. She has a large unsupported internal hangar space and also large openings in decks for aircraft and weapon elevators and special storage for aviation fuel. The ship probably incorporates more protective material than a typical surface combatant. If the Chinese were glad to buy preliminary designs for their destroyers, they would have been even more grateful for a carrier design.
Even the ship’s powerplant involved technology different from that familiar to Chinese shipbuilders. The carriers have high-pressure steam plants. Like all Western navies, the Chinese have adopted gas turbine and diesel plants in their surface combatants. They operate four Russian-built Sovremennyy-class destroyers with high-pressure steam plants, but they have not built such plants themselves. It is not clear whether the plant in the new carrier was imported from Russia. In recent service, such plants have had a mixed record. The Kuznetsov has suffered power problems.
Presumably the Chinese would have preferred gas turbines like those in the two new British carriers, but they had nothing powerful enough, and the continuing Western embargo on dual-use technology has precluded imports or license production of such engines. While the new ship was being built, there were reports she would have gas turbines. However, her island shows the same intake louvers and uptakes as the Liaoning, and there are photographs of what appear to have been boiler tests. It is not, of course, clear how a gas turbine powerplant could support a future steam catapult, which may equip the third ship. No other navy has combined gas turbines and catapults. The two new British carriers had a catapult option, which would have been the U.S. electromagnetic catapult, but those were omitted to contain costs.
As things now stand, the Liaoning and the new carrier can launch strikes with their J-15s operating at less than maximum range and with less than maximum payloads. They can accommodate antisubmarine helicopters. Their defensive capacity is limited by the lack of fixed-wing early warning aircraft, though in time they presumably will operate Ka-31s or their equivalents. They certainly will impress the smaller countries around the South China Sea. In a game of appearances, the presence of two or three impressive-looking Chinese carriers ought to carry considerable weight. It remains to be seen whether China’s neighbors (especially Vietnam) consider their submarine forces and land-based aircraft adequate counters.
Probably the most important role of the Liaoning and her new sister is that they will provide the Chinese Navy with experience operating carriers and air wings. A lesson of previous carrier navies is that without experience aircraft carriers can impress unsophisticated neighbors but will not provide combat power. With experience, the Chinese Navy can make good on its claim that its role is to protect Chinese vital interests abroad, beyond the first island chain to the east and to the Middle East.
Norman Friedman is the author of The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapon Systems, available from the Naval Institute Press at usni.org.
This article appeared originally at U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings Magazine.