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Analysis: Chinese aircraft carrier program progressing substantially into the new year

January 31, 2017 (Photo Credit: China's Ministry of National Defense)
MELBOURNE, Australia — China continues to make strides in its aircraft carrier program, with a number of milestones achieved in 2016 and looks set to make more in 2017.

The country’s sole carrier, the refurbished Soviet-era Kuznetsov-class ship, now renamed the Liaoning, was declared “combat ready” in November by Senior Capt. Li Dongyou, the political commissar onboard the ship as it departed for a training cruise that included a stopover at the purpose-built pier at the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) base near Sanya on Hainan island on the edge of the South China Sea.

The ship sailed with a battle group comprising of several PLAN destroyers, frigates and corvettes, while the Liaoning itself carried more than a dozen Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark carrier-borne fighters and several Harbin Z-9 and Changhe Z-18 helicopters onboard, including at least two Z-18J airborne early warning (AEW) helicopters.

Meanwhile, the same shipyard at Dalian that refurbished the Liaoning is building China’s second carrier. Known for now as the 001A — the Liaoning was designated the Type 001 — the new carrier is broadly similar to the Liaoning and retains the ski jump for launching aircraft, but contains a revised flight deck arrangement and other differences.

The superstructure of this carrier has been attached to the main hull, and it is expected that this ship will be launched later in 2017. Recent satellite photos of the PLAN air base near Huludao in China’s Liaoning province have shown that one of two simulated carrier decks painted on the runway for pilots to practice carrier landings has been modified sometime between June and October 2016, most likely to reflect the arrangement of the 001A’s flight deck.

The air base is where the PLAN’s J-15s are based when not deployed at sea. China has already built more than 20 production J-15s, with the 21st production aircraft operating off the Liaoning during its recent deployment. Two production batches of J-15s have been completed so far, with the first aircraft of the third production batch having recently been completed.

Chinese J-15
China has already built more than 20 production J-15s, with the 21st production aircraft operating off the Liaoning during its recent deployment.
Photo Credit: China's Ministry of National Defense

The use of the short takeoff but arrested recovery (STOBAR) method of launching and recovering fast jets on both Chinese carriers will, however, curtail combat utility by limiting the range and payload of its aircraft and precluding the operation of larger aircraft such as AEW or carrier onboard delivery (COD) aircraft.

The limitations of STOBAR have prompted China to continuing to pursue the development of catapults for launching its carrier-based aircraft. Satellite photos of the air base at Huludao show that China has constructed two parallel catapults, and analysts tell Defense News that it appears one of the catapults is an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System while the other is a conventional steam catapult, based on satellite photos of the inside of the catapults during construction.

Construction of the catapults was completed sometime between June and October 2016, with a satellite photo published by DigitalGlobe in mid-October showing a J-15 preparing to line up on one of the catapults. A photo of a PLAN J-15 with what appears to be a catapult launch bar on its nose wheel — used to couple the aircraft to the catapult of the carrier during the launch sequence — had surfaced the month before, adding further weight to the evidence that PLAN intends to switch to catapult-assisted takeoff but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) aircraft operations onboard its future carriers.

China's catapult systems in Huludao
China has built two land-based catapult systems at a PLAN base near Huludao, Liaoning province. It is believed they became operational by October 2016.
Photo Credit: DigitalGlobe via Google Earth

The construction of both types of catapults at Huludao suggests that China is exploring both technologies and has yet to decide on which type of catapult it will install on its future carriers. Chinese state media reported in 2014 that the country had reverse-engineered a land-based replica of the steam catapult and landing system from the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne, which had been sold for scrap to a Chinese company in 1985.

Rear Adm. Song Xue, then-deputy chief of staff of the PLAN, had already confirmed as far back as 2013 that China would build more carriers that would be larger and with more aircraft-carrying capacity than the Liaoning. The first of these carriers, tentatively designated the Type 002, is expected to be able to conduct CATOBAR operations.

Andreas Rupprecht, author of three books on the Chinese aircraft industry and military aviation, told Defense News that in addition to the launch of China’s second carrier later this year, 2017 will likely see “more lengthy and intense exercises by the Liaoning and J-15s, as well as the likelihood that we will see a second J-15 regiment established with aircraft from the third production batch”.

In late January, a mock-up of an AEW aircraft was photographed at the full-scale aircraft carrier training deck and island mock-up at the Wuhan Naval Research Institute facilities near Huangjia Lake, Wuhan. The photo showed the mock-up of a twin turboprop, four vertical-tailed aircraft with a large dorsal radar rotodome, similar to the Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeye used by the US Navy.

The Wuhan facility is used by the PLAN to carry out static tests of new platforms and systems; it usually serves as a good indication of future PLAN shipbuilding and platform plans. A prototype of a similarly configured AEW aircraft, based on an actual Xian Y-7 turboprop and designated JZY-01, has existed since 2011, although this is not believed to have ever flown and it is unknown if the recently seen mock-up is related.
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