China's aircraft carrier is among the world's worst kept military secrets in recent years. Formerly the Soviet carrier Varyag, the ship was retrofitted at the port of Dalian. Chinese bloggers advised that the best viewing location to observe the ship's retrofit was a window in the Dalian Ikea store.
After years of refurbishment, the ship commenced sea trials in late 2011 and was finally commissioned as the Liaoning in late September. Although what are believed to be full-sized models of a Shenyang J-15 and an Avicopter Z-8 AEW have been spotted on the deck, the Liaoning has yet to start flight operations.
"PLAN [People's Liberation Army Navy] airpower has so far been intended for littoral power projection and coastal defence," says Douglas Barrie, an air warfare analyst with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "The emergence of the carrier programme and the J-15 will allow the navy to begin to explore the projection of air power beyond the littoral environment, with the South China Sea as an obvious arena. Again, the pace of development of carrier operations and the carrier building programme will be a focus of interest."
The Liaoning will help the PLAN experiment with the complex technical issues involved in operating aircraft from a carrier deck. Even when the ship does become operational, it will have only limited capabilities. The ship's ski ramp is a far simpler and less maintenance-intensive way to launch aircraft than the catapults found on US aircraft carriers, but it comes with major trade-offs. Ski ramps require aircraft to launch entirely under their own power and this consumes valuable fuel and limits aircraft payload.
In addition, support aircraft in roles such as airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) or anti-submarine warfare (ASW) lack the power to use the ski ramps found on short take-off but arrested-recovery carriers such as the Liaoning. Finally, a ski ramp can launch only one aircraft at a time (compared with four for an American flat-top) and requires more space for an aircraft to take off, restricting the number of aircraft the ship can carry.
Nonetheless, there are tentative signs that the Liaoning is only a stepping stone and that China may have aspirations to one day operate catapult-assisted take-off, barrier arrested-recovery aircraft carriers, similar to those operated by the USA and France. Beijing also appears to be interested in beefing up its ability to perform missions such as ASW well beyond its coast line.
The Liaoning, a retrofitted Soviet carrier, uses a ski ramp for take-offs
In late July 2012, images emerged on Chinese defence sites of what appeared to be a testbed for a possible carrier-borne AEW&C aircraft based on the Xian Y-7 transport. The two most notable features are a large circular radar dome mounted on a single mast aft of the wing root. It is unclear whether this is an operational radome or a mock-up for testing aerodynamics.
The aircraft's tail has been highly modified and resembles the four vertical stabiliser arrangement found on the world's only carrier-capable fixed-wing AEW&C aircraft - the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye. The four vertical stabilisers that the E-2 Hawkeye has allows it to fit inside an aircraft carrier's hangar deck. Notably, the JZY-01 appears to lack a tail hook, an essential piece of equipment for a carrier-borne aircraft. In addition, the landing gear would need to be heavily modified for carrier operations and there is no indication that the wings can fold. The JZY-01 is also much larger than the E-2 Hawkeye, suggesting that it is only a testbed for technologies needed for a carrier-borne AEW&C aircraft.
Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow of the Military Transformations Programme at Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Studies, notes that British aircraft carriers such as the HMS Invincible were intended mainly for ASW operations. The British Aerospace Sea Harrier aircraft they deployed were primarily for the protection of ASW assets. He agrees with the view that the main purposes of Beijing's current carrier are training and prestige.
In November 2011, images emerged of a large ASW aircraft based on the Shaanxi Y-8 transport. The pictures show the four-engined turboprop with a large radome under its nose and with weapon bay doors in the open position. Most significantly, they also show a long appendage from the aircraft's tail, which could house a magnetic anomaly detector - an essential sensor for detecting submarines. This aircraft would be far too large to operate from a carrier, but on long range missions it, and other support aircraft, would benefit from the air cover provided by a carrier's fighters.
"At this point, China's carrier is entirely symbolic," adds Bitzinger. "The ski jump limits how much airpower you can pack in. Because they don't use a catapult, they have to use a lot of fuel to take off, which turns planes into flying gas tanks. This ship will not project power like a US carrier. It mainly exists to protect itself - a self-licking ice cream cone."