China’s sole operational aircraft carrier arrived in Hong Kong for the first time Friday in a display of military might less than a week after a high-profile visit by president Xi Jinping.
What is an aircraft carrier?
An aircraft carrier is whatever a particular navy defines one as. When the Liaoning began her life in a Ukrainian construction yard, the Soviet Navy intended to classify the ship as a “heavy aviation cruiser.” This was done to bypass the Montreux Convention, which prohibited aircraft carriers approximately four times her weight from transiting the Dardanelles (the straits that separate Europe and Asia in Turkey) because the ship was clearly an aircraft carrier. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the Japanese have also just built the Hyūga “helicopter destroyer.”
Is there anything nefarious about this visit?
While the local PLA Navy garrison has been known to sail through Victoria Harbour during politically tense times, I would not read this port call as having ulterior motives. One of the highlights of my childhood was the yearly air shows held at a nearby naval air station, and I am surprised the PLA doesn’t open their doors and show off their ships, helicopters, and other hardware more regularly. There’s a large segment of every population (mostly male) who love looking at stuff like this. It’s good PR to show off the navy meant to protect Hong Kong.
You can compare weight, length, technologies, and how many aircraft the ship can carry side-by-side for comparisons. Many people often compare the Chinese aircraft carrier with the US Navy “supercarriers,” represented by the ten ships of the Nimitz-class and the new Ford-class coming online. By numbers, the Nimitz-class is almost 10 per cent longer, carries 70 per cent more aircraft, and weighs almost twice as much.
But these figures are somewhat irrelevant because nobody makes carriers as large as the United States does. The Liaoning is an average-sized modern aircraft carrier by international standards, roughly equivalent to the carriers operated by France, Italy, and Brazil. Except for one French carrier, the United States is the only Navy that uses CATOBAR “cats and traps.” CATOBAR-equipped aircraft carriers use the steam generated by their nuclear engines to produce enough power to propel 36,000 kg from zero to 260 km/h in about a second.
Like most non-American carriers, the Liaoning uses the Short Take-Off Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) system because its turbine engine can’t produce steam as nuclear-powered carriers can. STOBAR carriers are identifiable by the ski-jump ramps at the front of the ships. Because aircraft carriers are 1/6th the size of a standard runway, they catch a hook on a wire laid out at the back of the ship.
Using ski-jumps instead of catapults comes with a few advantages, mostly in the form of being cheaper to build and maintain. Theoretically, STOBAR carriers can launch more aircraft more quickly because steam catapults need time to “recharge” after each launch. Ski-jumps also put less wear and tear on the airframe than catapults do, which is one reason US Navy aircraft are more rugged than their US Air Force counterparts.
After that, though, there are only disadvantages. A US Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet can take off with a full load of fuel and weapons, up to 15,400 kg, on either a carrier or a runway. The J-15 can take off with 15,500 kg on land, but can only get 68 per cent of that weight off the Liaoning’s ski-jump. So while the J-15 might an excellent modern jet, to operate it at sea means crews must fly it with less fuel and fewer weapons than they could on land.
STOBAR set-ups also mean there is a limited number of aircraft types that can be deployed on a carrier. Though the diversity of aircraft in the US Navy inventory is falling, two decades ago you would see the F-14 interceptor (shooting down bombers at long range), F/A-18 fighter, S-3 Viking anti-submarine aircraft, A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair bombers, E-2 Hawkeye AWACS, C-2 Greyhound transport, plus helicopters. These aircraft provide a carrier battlegroup (CVGB) better protection and more versatile roles. In contrast, the Liaoning carries only the J-15 and a handful of helicopters.
The lack of an AWACS platform should most concern the PLA Navy. An AWACS, a type of plane with a large radar on top which feeds data back to the strike group while acting as air traffic controller and lookout for threat hundreds of kilometres away. Putting a giant radar on its back and fly it up to look around is a good idea for a carrier battlegroup because radars can’t see over the horizon. The PLA’s solution is to put a smaller radar on a helicopter, with significantly less altitude, and endurance.
Why does China want aircraft carriers?
The Liaoning would not be long for this world in a head-to-head fight against an American carrier battlegroup because the J-15s on the Liaoning would fly into battle with fewer numbers, limited fuel and weapons, and less information about where their enemy is. But is also likely that the PLA never intends to use the Liaoning for combat operations. So why did they build it and why is it in Hong Kong?
The answer is threefold: learning, prestige, and projection. Pilots who land on aircraft carriers describe it like landing on a postage stamp in the middle of the ocean. It becomes orders of magnitude more difficult – and dangerous – at night and in bad weather. A carrier flight deck is also a dangerous place, with jet engine intakes that can lift an inattentive seaman up and suck him into the turbines when the jet is throttling up for takeoff. All of this takes an enormous amount of training. The Liaoning is commissioned, but it is still conducting what are known as sea trials. Pilots and crews are learning from scratch how to do what the US Navy has been doing for generations.
The PLA is also learning how to build aircraft carriers. They started with a rusty hulk of an incomplete ship in a Ukrainian shipyard to find out how the Soviets did it and then improved on many systems. Their second carrier, the unnamed Type 002, is the first attempt to build a very similar ship entirely from scratch. They plan many more carriers and are already experimenting with a sort of mag-lev catapult that uses electricity instead of steam.
Finally, there is the issue of projection signalling. The South China Sea today always has warships from a mix of countries, with the US presence often being the most powerful. A three month tour of the sea would make the Liaoning and her escorts the largest force there (unless a US carrier battlegroup shows up). Projecting pretence like that has a measurable impact on how those other navies behave there. The Liaoning is also a card to play to signal possible escalation when other countries are “hurting the feelings” of the Chinese people.
Consider the US Navy’s Freedom of Navigation (FONOP) exercises. Much to the chagrin of China, they have been sailing destroyers around China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea. It signals US intent and resolve without firing a shot. Sailing the Liaoning into the South China Sea before a FONOP might make the US Navy decide to stand down for a few weeks. It would signal to the US that they might want to bring more ships in because things might get hostile. To which their answer is only to escalate with more ships or back down. The Liaoning likely won’t deter anyone from getting into a fight with the PLA, but its an important card to play during conflict escalation.
Is the Liaoning distracting us from anything else?
Yes, her escort fleet. The PLA Navy has been modernising at an incredible pace. The Liaoning arrived in Hong Kong with two escorts, the most notable being the Type 054D destroyer Yinchuan launched only last year. Overshadowed by the much larger ship, the Type 054D is as well-equipped as the US Navy’s multi-role Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. A formidable anti-aircraft platform, they will make striking the Liaoning and future carriers almost as difficult as hitting a US carrier.
The Liaoning will soon be sailing with an escort fleet at least as powerful, if not more powerful, than what the Royal Navy will have escorting the HMS Queen Mary. In time, we will be seeing more of them performing solo patrols around the world to fly China’s flag and occasionally fight pirates.