It’s the symbol of Chinese prestige and naval prowess.
It’s supposed to strike the fear of god, into enemies — the US and its allies alike.
The flagship of the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy fleet.
The mighty aircraft carrier Liaoning.
Oh my, have we ever heard a ton — actually, about 66,000 tons — of hype about this boat.
Originally laid down in 1985 for the Soviet Navy as the Kuznetsov-class aircraft cruiser Riga, she was launched on 4 December 1988 and renamed Varyag in 1990.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, construction was halted and the ship was put up for sale by Ukraine. The stripped hulk was purchased in 1998 and towed to the Dalian naval shipyard in northeast China.
The ship was rebuilt and commissioned into the Liaoning on 25 September 2012, where it underwent major hull, radar and electronics upgrades.
Its Chinese ship class designation is Type 001. Then, on November 2016, the political commissar of Liaoning, Commodore Li Dongyou, stated that Liaoning was combat ready.
Indeed it was. But ready for what? Yet another stretch of the imagination from Beijing?
According to Medium.com, on at least one occasion during sea trials, Liaoning appeared to suffer a steam explosion which temporarily knocked out the carrier’s electrical power system.
During the accident, hot water and steam began “spewing” out of the engine’s oven compartment, Sina.com reported. One cabin became “instantly submerged in water vapor,” the report added.
Much to the ongoing embarrassment of PLAN officials, last year the USS Mustin guided missile destroyer easily tailed the Liaoning, and was able to photograph and observe the carrier at length on China’s doorstep — the South China Sea.
While recounting the incident, Vice-Admiral Roy Kitchener, the commander of the US Naval Surface Forces, claimed the Chinese carrier was subject to “operating restrictions,” EurAsian Times reported.
A nice way of saying, PLAN readiness was one big joke.
Speaking at the annual Surface Navy Association conference, US crew members “realized that at some point all the Chinese escorts sort of backed off” because “there’s some operating restrictions that they had around the carrier,” said Kitchener.
“USS Mustin didn’t have those (restrictions),” he said. “They proceeded on in, found a good station, and sat alongside taking pictures and doing other things for quite a bit of time.”
The photo was extensively circulated throughout the world and it infuriated China.
Red-faced (pun not intended) Chinese authorities called the activities “very vile” and accused the US of threatening Chinese ships and troops.
The PLAN had been caught with their naval pants down, and, clearly, they didn’t much like it.
The ease with which US Navy personnel were able to photograph a Chinese aircraft carrier would become a key point of discussion.
Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung, was quoted by the South China Morning Post as saying, “The Liaoning may have been busy with a complicated drill, allowing US officers to take photos.”
Too busy, to see a US Navy destroyer, on its tail? One solitary missile could have sunk the Liaoning, and its crew of 1,960. Sent it to Davey Jones’ locker.
Song Zhongping, a former Chinese military instructor, argued that the PLA followed pre-planned voyage routines, but the operational parameters of American crews were more flexible.
“It’s very common for warships to sail so close for parallel monitoring in unexpected encounters at high sea,” Lu said.
“But it’s rare for the captain and his deputy to sit together, showing that the Liaoning gave the USS Mustin quite a lot of time to take the picture because of its operating restrictions.”
In an attempt to flip the propaganda coin, Beijing-based military expert/mouthpiece Zhou Chenming told the SCMP it highlighted America’s paranoia over a rising China.
Often called China’s “starter carrier,” the Liaoning does mark a substantial step forward in aerial capabilities for the PLAN, although it, like the carrier itself, has limitations.
The aircraft onboard the Liaoning are capable and modern, although they are limited largely by the ship’s aircraft-launching mechanism.
The carrier air wing includes 24 Shenyang J-15 fighters, six Changhe Z-18F anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters, four Changhe Z-18J airborne early warning helicopters and two Harbin Z-9C rescue helicopters.
By the way, the PLAAF’s J-15s are considered far inferior, to US Navy and Marine fighters such as the FA-18-F Super Hornet, which can carry more weapons and fuel, and more importantly, see much farther with its advanced avionics package.
The Liaoning’s size also falls well below the US Nimitz-class carrier USS Ronald Reagan currently stationed with the US Seventh Fleet in Japan, the latter being over 60% heavier and 30 meters longer.
China’s second carrier, the Type 002, was essentially a copy of the Liaoning, though it did feature some improvements including upgraded radar, and increased fighter capacity.
Like the Liaoning, the Shandong features a large ski jump above the bow that helps launch jet fighters into the air.
The Type 003 will be larger than both the Type 002 and the Liaoning, and have a steam catapult launch assist system similar to what the US uses on aircraft carriers — and thus will likely dispense with the ski-jump bow launch assist platform.
A fourth carrier is also being built, the Type 004 — the first Chinese carrier to reportedly feature nuclear marine propulsion.
As we all know, conventional fixed-wing carrier aviation is risky and dangerous: reducing the accident rate of US Navy and Marine Corps jet aircraft to the same level as the land-based US Air Force took almost 40 years and cost some 12,000 aircraft and 8,500 lives.
Although the Chinese have the benefit of learning from the experience of other countries, how the Liaoning’s air wing would actually perform under operational conditions remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the PLAN has something called the Ford-class carrier to deal with, in the South China Sea. A carrier that so outclasses anything in China’s naval inventory, any resulting conflict would likely end badly for Xi Jinping and his comrades.
According to The National Interest, the Gerald R. Ford-class is the most advanced class of ships the US Navy has ever built and incorporates many new technologies.
In addition to its more advanced weapons elevator — which are all now in working order — the Ford-class carrier is powered by a pair of smaller, more simple nuclear generators that provide approximately 25% more electrical power than previous designs.
The Ford also features a new electromagnetic airplane launch system that replaces the traditional steam-powered design and a new aircraft arresting system.
Years late, and costing billions more than anticipated, the 1,092-foot long and 252-foot wide carrier will do its job, and then some.
The most important metric of carrier lethality is how many sorties (flights) the carrier can generate each day.
According to Forbes, the Navy’s goal is to achieve a 33% increase in sortie generation — 160 sorties per day under normal conditions, 270 during wartime surge operations.
It will take time and practice to achieve those goals, but with each strike fighter carrying multiple smart bombs, it doesn’t require much imagination to see how lethal 200+ sorties per day could be against most enemies.
So just how capable, is China’s Liaoning?
One expert actually labelled it a “boat-load of glaring weaknesses,” but let’s not subscribe to that. Surely, the PLAN has ironed out some of the ship’s problems — this is normal and par for the course for any vessel this size.
Chinese carriers are also believed to be slower and can only operate at sea for roughly six days before needing to refuel, whereas US nuclear-powered carriers can operate continuously for years, Task & Purpose reported.
However, it is important to remember that China has a different mission in mind for its carriers.
“It has little to do with fighting Taiwan or even fighting in the East China Sea,” Timothy Heath, a senior defense researcher at the Rand Corporation, told Insider. “In both of those situations, carriers are probably not going to last very long.”
Rather, China is hoping to use its carriers to help secure the important Indian Ocean trade routes that are the maritime part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
“That’s the real value of these, and it’s worth bearing that in mind when we start to question why they are willing to spend so much money on building carriers with limited air capacity,” Heath said. “For that mission, it may be enough.”