By Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins
Two months after China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning was commissioned, and a year and a half after it began sea trials, an Chinese J-15 fighter became the first known fixed wing aircraft to take off from and land on it. Footage of the occasion aired on CCTV (above) over the weekend shows the fighter jet, tail-hook clearly visible, successfully catching the arrestor wire on the deck of the Liaoning before coming to a stop and being directed to a designated location for technical checks. The video subsequently shows footage of the aircraft preparing for flight and flying off the end of Liaoning’s ski jump deck.
Once again, China has exceeded the expectations of many foreign observers regarding timelines for military capabilities development, though the tremendous publicity the event has received could limit the country’s ability to move with such speed in developing its aircraft carrier going forward.
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, reaching world standards, and achieving the recognition that has long eluded China. 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) in footage of the J-15 landing and take-off. 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.
How Big a Step Forward?
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.
The takeoff and landing were businesslike and accomplished without fanfare or incident, with the lone exception of the untimely death by heart attack of Luo Yang, president and general manager of Shenyang Aircraft Corp., who had been responsible for the carrier-based J-15’s research and development.
So how to assess the significance of China’s latest military accomplishment? One U.S. Navy expert with whom we spoke described it as a mile run by a former non-runner who is now training to run a marathon in the future. The magnitude of the present accomplishment depends largely on whether it is measured against the zero miles run before, or the 26.2 miles that must be run in the future.
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.
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.
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.
The Problem with Baby Steps
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.
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.
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. Even under ideal conditions–highly-trained senior pilots, careful attention to fuel to compensate for lack of aerial refueling capabilities, and access to divert fields–accidents will occur and aircraft and pilots will be lost.
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.
Andrew Erickson is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and a research associate at Harvard’s Fairbank Center. Co-founder of China SignPost, he blogs at www.andrewerickson.com.
Gabe Collins is co-founder of China SignPost, founder of ChinaOilTrader.com and is a J.D. candidate at the University of Michigan Law School.
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(This story has been posted on The Wall Street Journal Online’s China Real Time Report blog at http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime.)