Images Provide Clues to China’s Naval Might

Sep. 29, 2012 - 01:52PM   |  
By WENDELL MINNICK   |   Comments
China's first aircraft carrier berthed at Dalian port is seen Sept. 5.
China's first aircraft carrier berthed at Dalian port is seen Sept. 5. (AFP)
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TAIPEI — As China celebrated the launch of its first aircraft carrier last week, images and video posted on the Internet raise new questions as to how far along the country has come in the development of its carrier capability.

Soon after the carrier, named Liaoning, was commissioned Sept. 25 at Dalian Naval Base, Western analysts began dissecting photos and videos posted by the country’s state-controlled media. Some believe the images raise the possibility that Liaoning might be closer to fielding a carrier-based fighter jet capability than previously thought, while others are unconvinced.

In the past, photos of what appeared to be the Shenyang J-15 Sea Shark fighter, a variant of the Russian Sukhoi Su-33, on the deck of the carrier were dismissed by analysts as mock-ups. No photos or videos have been seen of a fighter landing on or taking off from the carrier, but images and video from the induction ceremony show skid marks on the flight deck. A video also shows what appear to be the tail wings of two J-15s in the hangar deck.

Chinese media have consistently reported that the new carrier would be used primarily as a training platform and “to practice how to integrate with a combined task force,” said Gary Li, an analyst at U.K.-based Exclusive Analysis. Whether real aircraft or mock-ups, the presence of the planes on the ship indicates the Chinese are likely already — at the very minimum — practicing plane-handling techniques on the first-of-its-kind carrier.

According to Chinese state-controlled media, Liaoning is outfitted with state-of-the-art weapons, including a 150-kilometer-range active phased array radar capable of tracking 200 air targets; a 250-kilometer-range Sea Eagle surface-search radar; a 10-kilometer-range Red Flag 10 (FL-3000N) anti-missile system; and a two-kilometer-range 30mm 1030 automatic cannon for anti-ship missiles.

Besides the J-15, other aircraft could include the Zhi-8 transport helicopter and Kamov Ka-28 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopter.

Some analysts said the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) might use the carrier initially as a helicopter carrier, akin to Japan’s Hyuga-class helicopter destroyers or the U.S. Navy’s Wasp-class amphibious assault ships.

“It is clear from certain pictures taken by the Chinese press in and around the carrier during the induction ceremony that there has been testing of the J-15 on the Liaoning,” Li said. “Tire marks on the runway suggest taking off and landing during sea trials, and one cameraman even managed to capture a J-15 test plane in the below deck hangar.”

But not everyone is convinced.

“I’m having trouble believing they’ve actually landed J-15s on this thing,” said Roger Cliff, a China military specialist at the Project 2049 Institute. Skid marks on the deck could be “touch-and-go” landings.

“The skid marks are well forward of where the arresting gear is,” he said. There is the possibility that they are also practicing takeoffs at sea.

“They could put J-15 prototypes, or even J-11s [Su-27], on the ship with a crane, take the ship out to sea, and practice taking off, landing back on dry land,” he said.

China would need a fighter that can handle a 3-degree angle of drop and a pilot would need to make several land-based arrested landings before trials can begin at sea, where the deck is pitching, Cliff said.

“When practicing on land, the consequence of touching down a foot behind where the deck starts is a poor landing score. If you do that on a carrier, you’re looking at a new aircraft, a new pilot, and repairs to the stern of the carrier,” he said.

Li said the J-15 is just one piece of the puzzle China needs to figure out.

“The lack of an early warning aircraft like the E-2 Hawkeye, even though a prototype has been spotted recently, and not enough dedicated ASW assets to go around in the form of Ka-28s [ASW helicopters], will mean that the Liaoning is not going to be conducting carrier operations in the true sense of the word for some time,” Li said.

Regional Jitters

The carrier could have a future combat role. Though analysts disagree about its capabilities, especially against the U.S. or Japanese navies, neighbors with territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, are taking the threat seriously.

“China operating a large carrier is no doubt raising concern among the other Asian nations,” said Bernard “Bud” Cole, author of “The Great Wall at Sea.” The addition of a carrier provides the PLAN “for the first time with a classic means of effectively projecting naval power at significant distances.”

“My sense is that the Chinese carrier has already served China well as a powerful information warfare tool, despite having not operated as a carrier yet,” said Bob Nugent, vice president of naval advisory services at AMI International, based in Seattle. From a strategic point of view, he said, the ship “sends the same message that much of the rest of its naval development over the past 20 years has — China will be a global naval power.”

What specific mission Liaoning and its successors will carry out remains to be seen, Nugent said, but the “inherent flexibility of the carrier flight deck, perhaps the ultimate ‘reconfigurable mission module,’ means that whatever the mission — from defensive sea denial to offensive power projection — the ship and its follow-ons can be quickly adjusted and moved to be ready.

“While she is clearly a test platform first, it is worth keeping in mind that other navies have pressed their test carriers into wartime service when needed,” Nugent said.

In a broader sense, the Chinese carrier program could spark an arms race in the region.

“The carrier will provide additional motivation for the other Asian nations to continue and perhaps accelerate their ongoing naval modernization programs,” Cole said.

Cole points to Japan’s acquisition of small carriers and new submarines; Australia’s plan to acquire a new class of submarines and its efforts to modernize its Navy in general; acquisition of submarines by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore; and a stated desire to acquire submarines by Thailand and the Philippines.

“Further, the Indian Navy has very ambitious modernization plans, to include nuclear-powered submarines and three aircraft carriers: Those plans will likely receive a significant boost the first time a Chinese carrier steams west of [the Strait of] Malacca,” Cole said.

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