NWI - Naval Warfare

Insight: China aspires to multiple carrier task groups

5th June 2019 - 09:00 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Hong Kong

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The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is on the verge of commissioning its first indigenously built aircraft carrier. Many expected it to participate in the 70th anniversary fleet review on 23 April, but its series of sea trials is ongoing.

This yet-to-be-named carrier, launched on 26 April 2017, will join the Type 001 Liaoning, a carrier acquired from Ukraine and refurbished by China. The latter carrier was commissioned on 25 September 2012.

The second carrier closely mimics the Liaoning in size and form, including a ski jump on the flight deck. That means it employs short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) for aircraft operations, which is a limiting factor. Most refer to it as the Type 001A because of its close similarity to its predecessor (but, to confuse matters, some call it a Type 002). 

This carrier continues to undergo trials, with tyre marks on its flight deck confirming that aircraft operations recently took place aboard it.

Early on in its career, China described the 55,000t Liaoning as a mere training ship that was never intended for combat missions. However, this is far from the truth, as it has been participating in exercises and has received modifications since August 2018 to better equip it for actual operations.

Indeed, Lu Qiangqiang, an executive officer on the Liaoning, recently described upgrades to it: ‘These changes will definitely help us make the best of the ship, improve our training protocols and boost our combat capability even further. The Liaoning is shifting from a training and test ship to a combat ship. I believe this process is going faster and faster, and we will achieve our goal very soon.’

A CCTV report listed modifications such as new arresting cables with better performance and longer life. There is also a new arresting net to stop an aircraft in an emergency. The flight control tower was enlarged, and the superstructure has better electronic shielding. The ship’s propulsion and power systems have been improved to make them more stable and efficient. The flight deck and pipelines have also been enhanced.

Collin Koh, research fellow at the Maritime Security Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, told Shephard: ‘Whatever was gleaned from the Liaoning trials and training exercises were transposed into the concept and implementation of the second carrier. In that regard, Liaoning received the same standards of upgrade.’

Thus, Koh said the first two carriers will have a high degree of standardisation. Therefore, ‘It is not just having Liaoning combat-capable or combat-ready. That training status is still there, but it’s just that it’s not a mere training platform and made for combat.’

Quite apart from their prestige value, aircraft carriers, more than any other piece of equipment, represent power projection. This is certainly true of China, and certainly they represent an ambition to project power far from Chinese shores. This is in accordance with the 2015 Defence White Paper that stated ‘the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests’.

In other words, China needs carriers for sea control and power projection.

China’s second indigenous carrier, and the PLAN’s third overall, is under construction at Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. It is referred to as the Type 002 (some say it is 003) and is expected to displace around 80,000-85,000t. Excavation for a floodable basin and channel has recently occurred, connecting the construction site with the river.

Koh commented: ‘There are various questions people ask. First, is it going to be a ski jump or a CATOBAR [Catapult-Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery]? Is it going to be steam or EMALS [Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System]? Is it going to be nuclear-powered or conventional? What we can be sure of, this envisaged third carrier is going to be a bigger one and, certainly at the very least, it will be able to carry a bigger aviation component.’

Koh said that open-source photos of blocks and modules under construction at Jiangnan, based on what can be seen of a wider bow design, suggest it will indeed be a CATOBAR carrier.

He added: ‘The thing is that having EMALS you will need to generate sufficient electrical power. The bigger question is whether this carrier will be nuclear-powered – this is the question that people ask.’ This carrier is widely thought to be ready by around 2022/23.

A mock-up of the new carrier’s island has been photographed at the Wuhan development facility. The superstructure has been modified, likely reflecting how the new type will look. For example, an integrated mast is mounted atop the superstructure, and it appears to have eight faces designed to accommodate multiple planar arrays. This is different to mechanically rotating H/LJQ-382 radar fitted on the first two carriers. The next carrier retains four square panels of the Type 346A Dragon Eye surveillance radar, however.

How many carriers does China aspire to? There have been media reports that four is the target, whereas others have said six. The fact is that everyone is only guessing.

Cdre Zhang Junshe of the Naval Research Institute in China said in January: ‘All this requires us to send a military force to distant seas to protect [our interests]. In these circumstances, I think we need at least three aircraft carriers. Of course, depending on economic development, we could legitimately revise this figure upwards.’

A recent South China Morning Post article suggested four flattops is the optimum number. However, this claim lost credibility when the article’s source suggested China aimed to have three out of four carriers available for operations at any time. This is totally unrealistic, with a ratio of one out of three carriers being operational at any pint in time is more achievable.

Koh noted: ‘If you look at it from a technical perspective, if you want at least one strike group to be ready at all times, then you probably need at least three. Typically, you’re talking about a year for an MRO for a major refit.

‘Ideally they would have three, because there’s a need for transit and training and downtime and all that. So three minimum to get an operational group at any time 24/7.’

Of course, carriers are sitting ducks without the necessary support, and so Koh reminded Shephard that China has also been developing assets necessary for a fully-fledged carrier strike group. Indeed, China has embarked upon a shipbuilding spree that has emphasised vessels such as Type 052D destroyers, Type 055 cruisers, Type 901 replenishment ships and nuclear-powered submarines.

Having more than three carrier strike groups would require an inordinate amount of investment, especially as ships start to age and require more maintenance. Koh also mentioned the critical need for China to develop the requisite tactics on how to operate its carriers and task groups, and much Chinese research has gone into this.

The RSIS academic added: ‘We always tend to hear that the PLA Navy’s carrier pathway is similar to what the US Navy has. If that’s the case, the PLA Navy is likely facing an uphill task because you’re talking about the carrier group and requirements for escort and all that are pretty high, not to mention the fact that, where you want to deploy them, you need to have the necessary supporting infrastructure and bases. All these carry a cost.’

The accrued cost to China will perhaps force the PLA to slow down its shipbuilding and fleet expansion aspirations, especially amidst the current trade war with the US.

Koh highlighted another issue. ‘The bigger question is, is it sustainable or possible for China to come up with a critical mass of qualified personnel…It is not just about the sailors. The thing for a carrier is naturally about the aviators. They can probably build as many J-15s, or the new follow-up fighter, for service as a carrier-borne aviation capability, but are they able to recruit enough folk? There are some recent hints…For example, a couple of months ago a report came out in the Chinese media that the PLA Naval Air Force [PLANAF] is seeking to expand its recruitment of aviators.’

Koh noted that the PLANAF is now actually looking to attract teenagers, signalling that the force recognises the need to start young. However, Koh pointed out that carrier-borne operations are dangerous, with an unknown number of Chinese pilots already dying.

The Singaporean academic reminded of the Chinese saying, ‘Good sons don’t become soldiers,’ whereby there is reluctance in the Chinese psyche to risk your life for nothing. This recruitment problem is common to the whole PLA, as it faces rampant employment competition with the private sector. ‘Young Chinese will prefer to work for the private sector earning better pay than to risk their lives.’

Another relevant question is the air wings for China’s carriers. Referring to the Type 001/001A, Koh explained to Shephard: ‘The size would be comparable to the Charles de Gaulle, for example,’ which typically carries 22 Rafales plus helicopters and Hawkeyes. ‘So if we take the French carrier as a benchmark, we’re probably talking about no less than 20 aircraft. So a safe number is probably 24’, which happens to be about the size of a PLA fighter brigade.

When helicopters (such as the Z-18 and Z-20) and AEW aircraft are added, a carrier air wing would come to about a conservative total of 30 aircraft, Koh assessed. He also mentioned Chinese interest in a carrier-borne tanker platform, which would give the PLANAF a more comprehensive air wing than what Russia possesses. China is known to be developing an E-2 Hawkeye lookalike that is tentatively known as the KJ-600.

The Liaoning’s only ‘foreign’ port visit to date has been a morale-boosting stopover in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy forces refuse to bow down to communist ideology. However, with more carriers in service, more such naval diplomacy designed to impress friends and overawe neighbours should be expected.

Gunboat diplomacy is extremely likely, perhaps in places like the Hormuz Strait or the Malacca Strait. The Liaoning has already passed both coasts of Taiwan, which was a measure clearly designed to intimidate.

Countries like the US will need to face the reality that carriers will become a complicating factor in Asian and, in the future, global naval operations. A more contested environment is inevitable.

However, the Chinese risk calculus will also tilt. Will the PLAN be willing to risk its carrier fleet in the event of a conflict? A carrier makes a ripe target for a USN submarine, for instance. Similarly, Japan is positioning truck-mounted anti-ship missile launchers on its southwestern islands, while Taiwan has supersonic HF-III coastal missiles that could threaten any carrier edging too close.

The future cost of maintaining several carrier strike groups – the carriers themselves, support ships and air wings – could also prove prohibitively expensive for China. Certainly, it will chew up huge amounts of renminbi that could be invested elsewhere in the PLA.

Brief mention should also be made of China’s future LHD, the Type 075. It is speculated from satellite imagery that the first-of-class is under construction at Hudong-Zhonghua in Shanghai. The LHD is expected to displace around 40,000t and measure 250m long. It would be large enough to accommodate around 30 helicopters.

LHDs could be readily used for amphibious assaults, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, non-combatant evacuations and counterterrorism missions.

However, without tiltrotors and VTOL fighters such as the MV-22 Osprey and F-35B Lightning II respectively, Chinese LHDs cannot yet pack the punch of USN LHDs.

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