Despite an impressive naval modernization over the past two decades, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) currently possesses little in the way of force-projection capabilities. ... At this point, the most visible manifestations
of the PLAN’s desire to possess this type of force-projection capability are its Type 071 amphibious transport dock (LPD), commissioned in November 2007; a second Type 071 hull now under construction; and, most significant, the
ongoing refurbishment of an incomplete, Soviet-built, Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier at Dalian....However, China’s desire to possess modern force-projection capabilities for its navy is also the source of considerable speculation and misunderstanding. This is particularly true for China’s aircraft carrier program. Speculation runs from
forward-leaning predictions that by the early 2020s China could have as many as five aircraft carriers, including two nuclear-powered hulls, to a recent prediction from an Australian policy research think tank that despite evidence to the contrary the Chinese are not serious about building aircraft carriers, because it would be “dumb for them to do so.”. ...
Also, while smaller and much less capable than a true aircraft carrier, China’s single Type 071 LPD is the PLAN’s first true deck-aviation ship, in that unlike destroyers and frigates, it can operate a larger number and more diverse mix of helicopters against a larger set of missions. ...
Further confusing the situation is Beijing’s own obfuscation. Despite years of interest in aircraft carriers and, evidence indicates, experimentation with aircraft carrier technology, as late as 2004 Chinese officials, including General Xiong
Guangkai, then deputy chief of the General Staff, stated that China did not plan to build carriers. One year later, the unfinished Soviet Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier Varyag, which China had purchased from Ukraine in 1998, went into dry
dock at Dalian Shipyard, in northern China, for an extensive refit that continues at this writing. Today anyone with access to the internet can track the extensive modifications to the ship in photographs posted on a number of blogs and
websites. Five years after the ship first entered dry dock, even the most skeptical observers are convinced that China intends to put the ship into operation in the not-very-distant future.
Roughly coincident with work on Varyag, Chinese rhetoric on this issue has shifted considerably, with officials and the media discussing aircraft carriers with increasing candor. These include positive statements in April 2009 regarding aircraft
carriers by Defense Minister Liang Guanglie and Admiral Wu Shengli, commander of the PLAN, as well as a March 2010 editorial in the English-language version of the Global Times stating that it was time for the world to prepare for a
Chinese aircraft carrier. ...
In addition to Varyag, China is also developing the aircraft that will compose the ship’s air wing. Press and internet reports claim China is producing a Chinese carrier fighter based on the Russian Su-33 Flanker D, designated the J-15; according to one website, the first prototype of this aircraft made its maiden flight on 31 August 2009 and its first takeoff from a land-based “ski jump” (runway ending in an upward ramp) on 6 May 2010. While the exact dates of these flights cannot be confirmed, recent internet pictures show a Chinese Flanker-variant prototype in flight with the same canards and shortened tail stinger as the Russian carrier capable Su-33; a video of the prototype flying is also on the web. While externally the J-15 appears to be a near copy of the Su-33, internally it likely possesses the same radar and avionics as China’s domestically produced land-based Flanker, the J-11B. It will probably be capable of employing a full suite of China’s most advanced air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions, including the PL-12 active-radarhoming, medium-range, air-to-air missile.
As an airborne-early-warning (AEW) platform, China may acquire, according to the Russian press, nine Ka-31 AEW helicopters. However, internet photographs indicate that China has fielded a prototype AEW variant of the Z-8 medium-lift helicopter. It is unknown which will be chosen as the primary AEW helicopter for the PLAN’s aircraft carrier force. It is possible the PLAN sees an indigenous platform based on the Z-8 as a long-term solution, with Ka-31s from Russia as gap fillers. Alternatively, the Z-8 prototype could also be a test bed for an AEW variant of a more modern helicopter, such as the developmental Z-15.11 Any of these would be much less capable than a fixed-wing AEW platform, such as the America E-2C Hawkeye.
PLA THEORY AND AIRCRAFT CARRIER EMPLOYMENT
...It is in the South China Sea that one should expect first to see the PLAN employ aircraft carriers. ...
The Chinese navy does not need to fight in the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean or at the center of the Pacific Ocean. The Chinese navy follows a proactive defense strategy. ...
It is highly unlikely for three reasons that China will seek to use its carriers to assert U.S.-style sea dominance in the Indian Ocean or elsewhere in what Chinese sources term “far-seas operations.” First, current estimates are that China
is going to build three or four carriers. Since it is highly unlikely that all of them will be combat ready at the same time, they would find themselves outnumbered and outgunned by the Indian Navy. India itself is looking to field a force of three aircraft carriers, but in the Indian Ocean they would be supported by land-based airpower, including AEW and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms. They could call on India’s fleet of submarines for additional
support. China’s carriers, by contrast, would be operating beyond the support of land-based airpower, with at best minimal support from China’s small force of nuclear-powered attack submarines. This also does not even address the possibility of American involvement, which would only make the situation less tenable for PLAN carrier groups operating in the Indian Ocean in wartime. Additionally, even if all of China’s carriers were combat ready, security concerns nearer home would likely preclude the PLAN’s surging all of its carriers and their escorts into the Indian Ocean, leaving the PLAN significantly weakened vis-à-vis powerful East Asian competitors.
Second, there is also the question of just how much combat capability PLAN carriers will bring to a traditional force-on-force conflict. It can be safely assumed that at the very least the PLAN’s first two carriers (to include ex-Varyag), and
possibly later ones, will employ a short takeoff but arrested recovery (STOBAR) —that is, a ski-jump design. This represents a significant limitation, because ski-jump-equipped carriers are far less capable than U.S. Navy–style catapult assisted takeoff but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) ships, which employ powerful steam catapults to launch heavily laden fighter and strike aircraft. STOBAR carriers are forced to operate rotary-wing AEW platforms, which are far less capable than fixed-wing AEW aircraft in terms of range, operating altitude, and the size of the radars they can carry, thereby severely inhibiting the situational awareness of a battle group. For regional operations (e.g., in the South China Sea) this would not be as much of a problem, because PLAN carriers could count on support from land-based AEW aircraft like the KJ-2000 and KJ-200, now in service in the PLAAF. In the Indian Ocean this would likely not be the case.
Recent internet reporting claims China has fielded a prototype fixed-wing AEW platform based on the twin-engine Y-7 transport, which is at least superficially similar to the U.S. E-2C, indicating the potential for future carrier use. This raises the possibility that China is looking to field CATOBAR carriers in the future and that its carrier force will ultimately include a mix of CATOBAR and STOBAR ships. However, the Y-7 is considerably larger than the E-2C, itself a challenging aircraft to operate off the U.S. Navy’s large carriers. This means that if China is going to field a carrier-capable AEW platform based on the Y-7, the airframe will likely require significant modifications before it is ready for employment at sea.
Third, although the J-15 itself may be able to employ a wide variety of air-to air and air-to-surface munitions, fighters operating from STOBAR carriers are limited in the fuel and weapons they can carry and so primarily defend their
battle groups, rather than acting offensively. Again, in a regional conflict where land-based strike aircraft (such as the JH-7A, H-6G, J-11B, and Su-30MKK/MK2) can be called upon for offensive strikes, this is not a big problem. Outside of East
Asia, however, China could not use land-based strike aircraft without air bases in foreign nations. STOBAR carriers, for their part, cannot generate as many sorties as CATOBAR carriers, because they cannot simultaneously launch multiple
aircraft, and the Kuznetsov and similar designs cannot carry air groups as large as those of American carriers.
These disadvantages, however, are not crucial for regional force projection, because land-based airpower would be available. PLAN carriers, therefore, would likely operate against opponents like Vietnam, in a supporting role—antishipping,
island seizure, and sea-traffic protection—as opposed to serving as the centerpiece of offensive fleets deployed thousands of miles beyond Chinese waters.