Chinese J-15 fighter succeeded in taking off from and landing on China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning

November 27 “U.S. experts’ comment: “China Aircraft Carrier Style!” assessing the first takeoff and landing” (The Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2012)


American experts on Chinese military affairs, Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collin contributed an article titled “China Aircraft Carrier Style!” to the American newspaper The Wall Street Journal dated the 27th, commentating about that an Chinese J-15 fighter succeeded in taking off from and landing on China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning. On the weekend in the fourth week of November, CCTV first broadcasted that J-15 landed and took off again on the aircraft carrier. Ericson and Collin described the first takeoff and landing, saying that China exceeded the expectations of many foreign observers regarding timelines for the practical use of the Chinese aircraft carrier. Below is the summary of the article.

(1) One carrier image in particular has caught the Chinese public’s imagination: that of a launch officer’s signal to release the wheels and send the aircraft racing down the runway. This iconic image of a “shooter” in action, popularized in the American film “Top Gun,” encapsulates Chinese aspirations for national success. Accordingly, images of Chinese of a wide range of ages and walks of life assuming the stance, some in the most unlikely locations, have flooded the Internet — a meme reminiscent of planking that Chinese Internet users having taken to calling “Aircraft Carrier Style,” after a certain viral video out of South Korea. In addition to the shooter gesture, American naval aviators with whom we spoke have noted familiar hardware and procedures akin to U.S. Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS). The landing signals officer platform, optical landing system, effective non-skid flight deck, and color-specific uniforms are all strikingly similar to their U.S. and Russian equivalents. China clearly appears to be employing a measured, methodical approach and taking the time to get things right. Liaoning and its crew were ready for the new step of landing the J-15 and having it takeoff again. All the pieces were in place, and the weather was ideal.

(2) To support future carrier capabilities, China must now establish comprehensive support infrastructure that the U.S. military refers to as doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, and personnel and facilities (DOTMLPF). It must develop training, logistics, and maintenance pipelines. It must also develop operational infrastructure, including command and control. In all these areas, which involve primarily hardware and software, it can continue to emulate U.S. and Russian approaches in many respects.

(3) Where China will truly have to develop its own approach is in developing a theory of operations: what its carriers will be used for, how many it will need, and the training and procedures to support such use. Here China may face more difficult challenges.

One obvious use of carriers is to enhance Chinese prestige by showing that Beijing has joined an exclusive international club. As soon as Liaoning’s air wing can be assembled, and operated with some degree of confidence, it will likely depart Chinese waters on a series of cruises to “show the flag” as a Great White Fleet of one. (Note: the name of United States Atlantic Fleet that displayed its power through around-the-world voyage from December 1907 to February 1909)

A second major mission is likely to entail demonstrating, and if necessary using, capacity to pressure neighbors with which China has island and maritime disputes. Being able to use deck aviation to cover an amphibious assault on islands, rocks and reefs—e.g., in the South China Sea—offers Beijing the means to pressure its smaller rivals without confrontation escalating into a shooting war. This approach may be fraught with risk, however, not only politically but also operationally. Carriers are generally ineffective platforms for sea control fighting in confined waters given their extreme vulnerability to missiles and other means of attack. Even a far-less-capable military, such as that of Vietnam, has the ability to develop rudimentary “anti-access” capabilities.

Beyond the possible regional contingencies where Chinese leaders might see a carrier as a useful instrument of national power, there is the question of to what extent the Chinese aircraft carrier program will be governed by the country’s naval strategy, and to what extent the carrier’s existence may reshape Navy leaders’ policy outlook and perception of how many carriers it needs. Although the ultimate number of aircraft carriers China will build remains uncertain, Chinese sources such as the Liaoning carrier’s deputy chief designer suggest the country seeks multiple carriers. There are relatively straightforward operational reasons behind seeking multiple vessels. For instance, keeping 1-2 carriers operationally ready means that the PLAN would likely need at least 3-4 vessels.

(4) Carrier aviation is an inherently risky business. In “Top Gun,” Nick “Goose” Bradshaw dies in a training accident. In real life, the U.S. carrier program was forged in the crucible of wartime, when severe losses were not just accepted but expected. Planes and pilots were lost at an extreme rate, but the Navy gained invaluable experience in the process. High loss rates persisted well through the early Cold War years. Despite tremendous improvements, even today it is not uncommon for a plane, pilot or deck crew member to be lost.

(5) Chinese deck aviation, by contrast, is being developed in a technologically-advanced peacetime environment that does not justify significant losses. While carriers have always been “high-value units” whose use has been predicated on acceptable risk, today’s aircraft are more expensive and pilots scarcer in relative terms, making losses much harder to tolerate. Beijing has started with a prestigious, flawless image, and wants to maintain it both abroad and perhaps especially at home. In fact, the very public interest and support that has helped to propel China’s aircraft carrier program may stymie it by making decision-makers extremely risk averse.

(6) This poses a dilemma. Adopting a risk-averse flight posture and avoiding high-volume flight operations may minimize accidents, but it cannot prevent them entirely. An American naval analyst has recounted to us a slow-motion tragedy in which a U.S. Navy aircraft caught an arrestor wire and ruptured it without slowing down sufficiently. Unable to stop in time, yet sapped of momentum sufficient to permit a hasty takeoff, the aircraft rolled off the deck in front of the carrier and was promptly run over, causing both aircraft and pilot to be lost. Even the most meticulous Chinese operations could not prevent such an accident. On the other hand, always choosing “baby steps” over “pushing the envelope” will severely restrict the progress that Beijing can make. Chinese planners thus face important decisions in this regard. How they decide will be reflected in part in how aggressively Liaoning pursues operations at night, in all weather conditions, and in rough seas. Perhaps if public excitement eventually dies down, it will become easier to use the carrier.

Refer to the article: China Aircraft Carrier Style! Assessing the First Takeoff and Landing

[Related article 1] “Korean naval professional’s comment: China’s A2/AD strategy and commissioning of aircraft carrier” (Pac Net, No 72, November 13, 2012)

Dr. Sukjoon Yoon (retired ROK Navy Captain), a senior research fellow of the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy and visiting professor of defense system engineering, Sejong University in Seoul, contributed an article titled “An Aircraft Carrier’s Relevance to China’s A2/AD Strategy” to PacNet, No. 72 of CSIS Pacific Forum dated the 13th. Yoon discussed the position of a Chinese aircraft carrier in A2/AD strategy in his article as follows.

(1) Two forces have driven the acquisition of China’s first aircraft carrier: the ambition of the late Adm. Liu Hwaqing, known as China’s Mahan, who, as the first PLAN officer to visit a U.S. aircraft carrier, played a crucial role in promoting the PLAN’s interests; and the concern of the Chinese leadership that their country’s status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council could be undermined by the lack of an aircraft carrier. According to this view, possession of an aircraft carrier and its associated air wing are the preeminent manifestation of great power status. Until 2012, China’s naval air capabilities were limited to regional naval power functionality −notwithstanding its global interests −after the strategic prioritization of asymmetric tools in a naval modernization drive that had strictly adhered to an “anti access, area denial” A2/AD strategy. The Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, and the most substantial and transformational naval platform ever built by the Chinese navy, signals the start of a new phase for China.

(2) The conceptual basis of China’s military strategy has been considered defensive in nature due to the lack of high-level military technologies and resources. The PLAN has adopted an A2/AD strategy with asymmetric assets such as anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM), and stealthy diesel and nuclear-powered submarines. The PLAN’s acquisition of an outdated aircraft carrier has changed the nature of its naval strategy. With an aircraft carrier and, before long, indigenous aircraft carriers capable of carrying 2?3 air wings, the PLAN has progressed one step closer toward deploying an operational area-access and ocean-going task fleet comprising a variety of assets, including sophisticated surface screening, underwater, early warning and replenishing, and support-at-sea vessels. With its fleet air wing capability, China will be able to achieve significantly greater offensive naval power projection capabilities, which will extend the combat-effectiveness of its land-based naval power beyond the regional air defense functions of its current fleet. Alarm bells have been ringing recently. In future naval exercises, a yet-to-be-commissioned indigenous aircraft carrier seems to be the intended flag ship, with a naval operation concept of composite warfare, including naval air wing functions of fleet air defense and the projection of air-strike power inland. The PLAN aircraft carrier apparently means to test the application of the concept of offensive multi-mission naval warfare, as manifest in a blue-water navy capacity reaching to the outer island chain.

(3) The induction of China’s first-ever operational aircraft carrier indicates that the naval concept of sea control is gaining ground against the established, and much less expensive, concept of sea denial. The Chinese A2/AD strategy has produced very successful and satisfactory results, and continuing this approach may result in the U.S. withdrawing back to Guam-Hawaii-San Diego and the PLAN being able to take a breath to build momentum for the expansion of its naval operational space. The expected commissioning of an indigenous aircraft carrier by the PLAN in the near future will clearly distinguish the line between an A2/AD strategy and a sea control concept. The A2/AD strategy has demonstrated that the Chinese navy can apply the concept of sea denial as a low-cost, low-risk and high effective strategy to prevent adversaries from using the maritime domain. Once it possesses true aircraft carrier capability, however, the PLAN will be able to implement a new conception of maritime strategy, based on the principle of sea control rather than sea denial.

(4) There are U.S. countermeasures designed to marginalize the Chinese A2/AD strategy: the AirSea Battle Concept (ASBC) published in 2011, and the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) published by the Pentagon and the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2012. The former is aimed at China’s A2/AD strategy, and the latter focuses on the deterrence of China’s military expansion into the western Pacific. The existence of Chinese aircraft carriers has provoked a debate among the United States and its allies. The received wisdom is that China’s current A2/AD strategy in the East Asian seas will soon be amended, and that a Chinese declaration of “no-go-zones” is more than likely. The United States and its partners have to articulate a maritime strategy beyond the passive “Cooperative Strategy for 21stCentury Sea Power,” and it has to be more specific than the stated intention to achieve a 60/40 allocation of U.S. naval assets between the Pacific and the Atlantic. To counter the Chinese aircraft carrier(s), the U.S. navy needs a “US version” of the A2/AD strategy, such as the ASBC.

Refer to the article: An Aircraft Carrier’s Relevance to China’s A2/AD Strategy

[Related article 2] “U.S. Navy take notice: China is becoming a world-class military shipbuilder” (The Diplomat, November 1, 2012)

American experts on Chinese military affairs, Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collin contributed an article titled “U.S. Navy Take Notice: China is Becoming a World-Class Military Shipbuilder” to the web magazine The Diplomat dated the 1st. They said, “China’s military shipyards now are surpassing Western European, Japanese, and Korean military shipbuilders in terms of both the types and numbers of ships they can build. If Beijing prioritizes progress, China’s military shipbuilding technical capabilities can likely become as good as Russia’s are now by 2020 and will near current U.S. shipbuilding technical proficiency levels by 2030. China is now mass producing at least six classes of modern diesel-electric submarines and surface warships, including the new Type 052C “Luyang II” and Type 052D “Luyang III” destroyers now in series production.”

In addition, eight key themes, listed sequentially below, characterize China’s rise as a world-class military shipbuilder. For reference, the companies building the warships are China State Shipbuilding Corporation (“CSSC”) and China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (“CSIC”).

1. China’s warship buildout thus far supports modernization and replacement, not rapid expansion

Over the past six years, China’s overall fleet of frontline combatants has expanded, but slowly, growing from 172 ships in 2005 to an estimated 221 vessels in 2012. However, the fleet has improved substantially in qualitative terms as newer ships and subs replace older ones. For instance, as Type 052 C/D Luyang-series destroyers, Type 054A Jiangkai II-series frigates, and Type 041 Yuan diesel-electric submarines have come into the fleet, they are allowing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to steadily retire obsolete platforms like Luda destroyers and Ming submarines.

2. Chinese military shipbuilders are catching up to Russian and U.S. Yards

China’s large state-backed military shipbuilders are approaching their Russian and U.S. peers in terms of the number of warships built. China’s large submarine and surface warship buildout will, in a decade, likely have it become second only to the United States in terms of total warships produced since 1990. More importantly, the ramp-up of China’s construction of large warships in recent years will mean the PLA Navy will likely be taking delivery of larger numbers of modern surface combatants and submarines annually than the U.S. Navy. Measured in terms of warships commissioned since 1990, China is now number three globally and is rapidly gaining on Russia, the number two country. Most of Russia’s post-1990 military ship deliveries simply reflected yards “finishing up” Soviet-era projects.

3. China’s military shipbuilders are using modular mass production techniques

CSSC’s Jiangnan Shipyard is using modular construction methods to build Type 052-series destroyers. Modular construction involves building the ship in “blocks.” This maximizes a shipyard’s productive potential and also provides greater latitude for modifying designs and customizing ships. Modular construction also gives yards the flexibility to either build centers of expertise within the yard or outsource the production of certain components and then import them to the yard for final assembly. CSSC’s Hudong Zhonghua shipyard also appears to be using modular construction techniques for the Type 071 LPD (dock landing ship). The yard has now constructed four of the vessels, two of which are in service and two of which are in the trial/outfitting stage. They have also been able to fabricate the Type 071 hulls faster, with a time gap of nearly four years between the first and second vessels, but only 10 months between vessels two and three, and four months between vessels three and four.

4. China’s military shipyards appear to be sharing design and production information across company lines

Historically, CSIC built all Chinese submarines, but the current production run of Type 041 Yuan-class advanced diesel electric subs has seen at least two boats being built in CSSC’s Jiangnan yard. This suggests submarine construction expertise is growing outside of CSIC. However, there are no indications thus far that CSSC is doing submarine design work, which could mean that Beijing is making the companies and their design institutes share submarine design and construction information. Likewise, the new Type 056 corvette is being built in both CSSC and CSIC shipyards, suggesting that a standardized design and production approach is being shared by both companies.

5. China’s military shipbuilders will be able to indigenously build aircraft carriers

China’s first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, which entered service on September 25th, 2012 of this year, started as an empty hull and gave CSIC valuable experience in effectively creating an aircraft carrier from the keel up. China has a total of seven shipyards with sufficiently large berths to assemble a carrier hull (three hundred meters or more), and the yards are basically equally dispersed between CSSC and CSIC. These yards are located in Dalian (CSIC), Qingdao (CSIC), Huludao (CSIC), Shanghai (CSSC), and Guangzhou (CSSC). CSIC Bohai Shipbuilding Heavy Industry complex near Huludao (where China builds its nuclear submarines) is a top candidate due to its large, covered building sheds where carrier parts could be fabricated in modular fashion and out of the view of satellite surveillance. The company says it has the “largest indoor seven-step” ship construction facilities in China. This facility, together with CSSC’s large new Changxing Island yard, and CSIC’s Dalian yard—which fitted out the carrier Liaoning that just entered PLAN service—are the three leading candidates to build China’s indigenous carriers.

6. China will retain a military shipbuilding cost advantage

We project that for at least the next five years, Chinese shipbuilders will have a substantial labor cost advantage over their counterparts in South Korea, Japan, and the United States. CSSC’s Jiangnan shipyard can likely deliver a Type 052C destroyer for 24% less than it costs Korea’s Hyundai heavy Industries to produce a KDX-III destroyer. Likewise, according to disclosures in the July 2011 issue of Shipborne Weapons, Wuchang shipyard can produce a late model diesel electric sub such as the Type 041 for roughly 47% less than it would cost South Korea’s DSME to make a Type 209 submarine. The lower labor cost in China likely serves as a core driver. This may help explain the larger Chinese cost advantage in building submarines, since advanced submarines can require substantially larger number of man-hours to build than surface ships do.

7. China’s neighbors feel increasingly compelled to augment their naval forces in response to Chinese warship production

South Korea has decided to expand its procurement of advanced diesel-electric submarines to include nine KSS-III 3,000-ton submarines by 2020 and nine 1,800-ton subs by 2018. South Korea has also elected to double its Aegis destroyer purchases over the next decade. Similarly, Vietnam’s maritime friction with China and fear of the PLAN’s growing power is making Hanoi into one of the Russian defense industry’s star customers. Vietnam has ordered six Kilo-class diesel submarines from Russia and is likely to take delivery of its first Kilo by the end of 2012. Hanoi is also adding advanced Russian anti-ship missiles and stealthy Gepard-class missile armed patrol boats to its naval force.

8. China now has the potential to become a significant exporter of diesel submarines and smaller surface warships

China’s shipbuilders are becoming increasingly competitive in terms of the ratio of cost to combat power they can deliver. For instance, the July 2011 issue of Shipborne Weapons reports that China will supply 6 potentially Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP)-equipped submarines to Pakistan for as little as 1/3 the unit price at which European shipyards would be able to supply comparable boats. With the advent of the Type 041 Yuan-class diesel sub and Type 056 corvette, China now has two platforms for which it is already capable of series production and for which the unit costs are likely to drop significantly in coming years. The export version of Russia’s Steregushiy-class corvette, called Tigr, currently stands at around

U.S. $150 million per vessel. As China’s Type 056 production run continues to expand, it would not be a surprise to eventually see the PLAN’s unit cost end up in the U.S. $110-120 million per vessel cost range, which would make the Type 056 a serious export competitor to the Tigr and other smaller Russian warships.

Conclusion-Challenges for the Future

China’s naval shipbuilding industry has advanced to the point that it can series produce modern diesel submarines, landing platform docks (LPDs), destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and fast attack craft, albeit with some imported components for a number of key systems. The ongoing series production of Type 041 SSKs, Type 071 LPDs, Type 052 destroyers, and Type 056 corvettes strongly suggests that China’s military shipbuilders have rapidly assimilated commercial innovations such as modular construction.

Chinese naval shipbuilding faces several challenges moving forward. Most notably, six major questions remain:

(1) Does Beijing have the political will to continue devoting substantial and growing resources to naval modernization?

(2) Can China achieve requisite technical advances in weapons systems, propulsion, and military electronics?

(3) Can China master the technologies needed to build nuclear submarines capable of surviving in a conflict with U.S. and Russian boats?

(4) Can it build an aircraft carrier with catapults that would allow it to maximize the strike and air combat capabilities of the J-15 fighter it is likely to carry?

(5) Will the Chinese leadership be willing to invest political and financial capital in establishing intensive and realistic training for the PLAN and provide diplomatic support for establishment of sustained access to facilities in key areas such as the Indian Ocean region?

(6) Will continued weakness in the global ship market prompt Beijing to capitalize on the availability of shipyard space to further increase the pace of military shipbuilding?

The U.S. strategic rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific will need more than rhetoric if it is to remain credible in the face of China’s potential to rapidly produce modern warships. The Pentagon should consider adjusting the U.S. Navy’s ship acquisition programs in response. As Chinese warships become better, the numbers ratio between the PLAN and U.S. Navy combatants will become increasingly important. Given that shipbuilding is an industry where lead times can be many years, now is the time for Washington to prepare strategically for further naval advances.

Refer to the article: U.S. Navy Take Notice: China is Becoming a World-Class Military Shipbuilder

From “Intelligence Analysis (November 2012)”