The entry of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, into service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) attracted considerable attention from both the Chinese press and military observers around the world. For some, the Liaoning was a symbol of China’s global power; for others, it represented a significant first step toward a more muscular and assertive Chinese navy.
Originally built as a “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser” for the Soviet Navy, the ship was laid down as the Riga and renamed the Varyag in 1990. A Chinese travel agency purchased the unfinished hull in 1998, and three years later the ship was towed from the Ukraine to China, where it underwent extensive modernization of its hull, radar, and electronics systems. After years of refits, the Liaoning was commissioned into the PLAN in September 2012 as a training ship unassigned to any of the Navy’s three major fleets. Two months after the ship was commissioned, the PLAN conducted its first carrier-based takeoff and landings. Although it might be several years before a carrier air regiment is fully integrated into the PLAN, it was reported in November 2016 that the Liaoning is now combat ready. Most recently in mid-December 2016, China staged the first live-fire drills involving the Liaoning.
The Chinese have made significant progress in developing their carrier program, raising significant questions about the Liaoning’s capabilities and what these capabilities mean for the rise of China as a global power.
A 3D look at the Liaoning
How is the Liaoning different than other countries’ carriers?
The Liaoning differs from the aircraft carriers of other countries in both size and capability. Although its overall capability is hindered by its comparatively inefficient power plant and underpowered aircraft-launching system, the Liaoning represents an important step in advancing China’s ability to project naval power.
When one considers the respective capabilities of aircraft carriers, tonnage and deck-side size are important indicators for the amount of stores, munitions, and aircraft a carrier can bring to a fight. The Liaoning is by no means a small ship, but it is far from the largest or most capable carrier in the Asia-Pacific. The Liaoning displaces roughly 60,000 tons — over 30,000 tons more than the Japanese helicopter destroyer Izumo — and is nearly 60 meters longer. The Liaoning also boasts a size advantage over the Soviet-built Indian carrier Vikramaditya, with a deck 20 meters longer and weighing approximately 15,000 tons more.
Already with China’s so-called starter carrier, Liaoning, there is significant potential in the near future to take it overseas for some basic naval diplomacy . . . and this will already have tremendous symbolic and psychological effects.
The Liaoning’s size falls well below the U.S. Nimitz-class carrier USS Ronald Reagan currently stationed with the U.S. Seventh Fleet in Japan, the latter being over 60 percent heavier and 30 meters longer. The Ronald Reagan weighs 97,000 tons fully loaded and spans 333 meters long, far outsizing the Liaoning. The numbers bear out the fact that the Liaoning is neither a lightweight nor a supercarrier like the USS Ronald Reagan.
The Liaoning’s otherwise middleweight size belies its limited capabilities. Higher speed means faster time to target and improved ability to outrun potential threats, but the Liaoning’s steam turbine power plant limits its top speed. Notably, the Soviet power plant upon which its propulsion is likely based suffered from poor design and maintenance and may limit the Liaoning to a typical speed of around 20 knots.
These figures are on par with the Indian Vikramaditya, but likely well below the 30-plus-knot top speed of the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan. Nimitz-class aircraft carriers generate considerably more power from their nuclear reactors and only require one midlife refueling during their approximately 50-year service life.
How does the Liaoning’s air wing compare to the naval air arms of other countries?
The Liaoning’s air wing represents a significant leap in air capability for the PLAN, but its inherent capability is limited much like the carrier itself. The aircraft aboard the Liaoning are capable and advanced, but remain restricted primarily by the ship’s aircraft-launching system and relatively insufficient amount of personnel training.
While the Liaoning’s air wing of 24 Shenyang J-15 multirole fighters is larger and more capable than the antisubmarine helicopters embarked aboard the Japanese Izumo, it falls well short of Ronald Reagan’s over 55 fixed-wing aircraft. The fixed-wing aircraft aboard the Liaoning, although advanced, are limited in both range and endurance. The J-15 aircraft are Chinese-modified variants of the Russian fourth-generation Sukhoi Su-33. Fourth-generation fighters boast digital flight avionics and advanced radars that represent a significant improvement over the analog systems of third-generation aircraft, but lack the low-observable stealth technology of fifth-generation fighter aircraft like the American F-35C.
A Conversation with Andrew Erickson
0:05 - Why does China see the need for an aircraft carrier - is it a symbol of great power status or does it address a specific security need?
1:24 - In what scenarios is China likely to use its aircraft carrier?
6:00 - What progress has been made in developing an indigenous carrier and how will a second carrier enhance China’s capabilities?
12:21 - Will the Liaoning transform China into a naval superpower?
14:14 - How much training is required to make the Liaoning fully operational?
Advanced equipment notwithstanding, the J-15 is limited in range and payload by the Liaoning’s lack of an aircraft catapult. The Liaoning’s aircraft-launching system relies upon a ski jump-style deck instead of the steam catapults used by the United States and France, forcing the aircraft to expend considerable internal fuel during takeoff and thereby severely curtailing its payload. For instance, analysts estimate that the maximum takeoff weight for a J-15 from the Liaoning would be limited to approximately 62,000 pounds. By comparison, the USS Ronald Reagan can launch an aircraft with a maximum takeoff weight of 100,000 pounds. It has recently been confirmed that China is building a second carrier that will be built entirely with Chinese designs and technology. China’s second carrier will also use a ski jump for takeoff.
The Liaoning’s shortcomings are not unique to the PLAN—the Indian Vikramaditya’s Russian-made fourth-generation MiG-29K fighters face similar takeoff and range restrictions owing to Vikramaditya’s similar lack of an aircraft catapult. Though carrier operators can bypass the inherent tradeoff between carrying internal fuel and weapons on the aircraft using midair refueling, the practice remains difficult to execute, and the PLAN’s refueling capabilities are not yet fully developed.
Hardware performance aside, the Liaoning’s air wing is also hindered by comparatively less personnel training and experience than other countries. Chinese carrier pilots only began training on the ship in November 2012 and in 2015 the PLAN certified its first air wing of domestically trained J-15 pilots. According to the DOD, China is expected to deploy the air wing in 2016. Nevertheless, the proficiency of Liaoning’s pilots, commanders, and support staff remains unclear. Conventional fixed-wing carrier aviation is risky and dangerous: reducing the accident rate of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps jet aircraft to the same level as the land-based U.S. Air Force took almost 40 years and cost some 12,000 aircraft and the lives of 8,500 personnel. Although the Chinese have the benefit of learning from the experience of other countries, how the Liaoning’s air wing would actually perform under more demanding operational conditions at sea remains to be seen.
A Conversation with Andrew Erickson (Uncut Interview)
The problem here for China is that deck aviation is really not so much about the ship that supports everything . . . it’s really the complex system of systems of aviation operations operating off the carrier. That’s the key value of the carrier. That’s the key to the carrier’s ability to project power in the form of the ability to conduct actual strikes. And that’s where it’s very hard to get anywhere close to the U.S.-type gold standard.
What kinds of missions might the Liaoning perform in the region and around the globe?
The physical and operational limitations of the Liaoning and its associated personnel and equipment indicate that the Liaoning might be best suited for regional missions short of high-intensity conflict. As the PLAN improves its capabilities, future missions could take the Liaoning and its accompanying sailors, fleet escorts, and aircraft farther from China’s periphery.
The Liaoning’s lack of an aircraft catapult, inefficient power plant, and the relative inexperience of its aviators and support team do not augur well for sustained high-intensity combat operations—even within waters close to the Chinese Mainland, where the Liaoning could expect support from land-based aircraft and radars. Accordingly, Chinese strategists advocate using the Liaoning for regional missions—including humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR), training exercises with other nations, showing the flag, and asserting Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea—for which the Liaoning appears better suited. Furthermore, the Liaoning has considerable utility as a tool of naval diplomacy—providing helicopter lift for HADR missions and engaging in multinational training exercises will signal to other countries that China is a responsible rising power. Such efforts would complement China’s growing commitment to multilateral initiatives, such as UN peacekeeping efforts.
Explore the Liaoning Aircraft Carrier
As the PLAN improves its combined arms capabilities and the Liaoning’s personnel become proficient in higher-tempo operations, the Liaoning’s repertoire could expand to include fleet air defense and maritime and land strike further afield from Chinese waters. These missions would require enhanced personnel as well as greatly improved situational awareness, communications, and logistical support far from current Chinese bases—assets that the PLAN may not yet possess in sufficient quantity or quality.
In sum, global combat missions remain outside of the Liaoning’s reach given its current operational status, and the status and number of the Liaoning’s potential fleet escorts. Chinese planners may not even have such ambitions in mind. On the other hand, less intensive missions such as noncombatant evacuation, maritime peacekeeping, and maritime antiterrorism provide good training opportunities and will become increasingly feasible for the PLAN in the future.
While the Liaoning’s possible mission set remains unclear, the prestige and attention conferred upon the ship during its construction, subsequent fitting-out, and deployment indicate that Beijing considers the Liaoning a symbol of China’s great-power status. Regardless of the Liaoning’s future abilities, the ship commands a degree of political utility as a tool of naval diplomacy through various operations, regional and global.