Here's What You Need to Remember: There is little point in massively expanding a fleet of aircraft carriers without the requisite number of pilots needed to operate them. China needs those pilots.
The Chinese Navy is taking aggressive steps to massively rev up its fleet of carrier-based attack jets with a new generation of pilots specifically trained to operate ship-based aircraft.
A story in the Chinese Government-backed Global Times newspaper says the PLA Navy made history by qualifying the first group of new fighter-jet pilots specifically recruited to fly carrier-launched aircraft.
The report makes the interesting point that traditional pilots, while of course quite experienced with fighter jet operations and flight, might have more trouble transitioning into roles flying carrier-operated planes.
“Although switched pilots may have accumulated flight experience in previous service, such experience is not necessarily helpful as muscle memory may hinder them from adapting to shipboard aircraft, Li said. Pilots usually throttle down the engine when landing, but for carrier-based aircraft pilots, they need to keep that or even throttle up,” the report says.
The training and flight preparations, using Chinese J-15s, are taking place on China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.
What this means is that the PLA Navy is moving as quickly as it can to arm its growing fleet of carriers with pilots, fighter jets, and trained crews. This makes sense and is a point that could easily be overlooked given the amount of attention now being paid to the pace of China’s expanding carrier fleet. China’s second carrier, its first indigenously built platform, is already operational, and work on a third and fourth carrier is already underway.
China is adding new carriers, along with amphibious and destroyers, at a staggering speed, generating concern at the Pentagon regarding the scope and size of its growing Navy as well as its industrial capacity. Furthermore, its newer carriers look quite similar to modern U.S. carriers, as is often the case with emerging Chinese platforms which seem to pop up several years after new U.S. systems arrive, and they often look very similar. This is not only true of carriers but also destroyers and amphibs. Elements of the new Chinese fleet of somewhat stealthy Type 055 destroyers, for example, resemble the U.S. Zumwalt class, and its new fleet of amphibs clearly mirror the U.S. America class.
The Chinese Navy is already substantially larger than the U.S. Navy in terms of sheer size, and has no apparent plans to slow down the pace at which it adds new ships. New stealthy destroyers and Type 075 amphibs, for example, are arriving quickly to further fortify China’s visible plan to lead the world as a global maritime power. In fact, China is well known to be pursuing a plan to add 40 new destroyers within five years.
After all, there is little point in massively expanding a fleet of aircraft carriers without the requisite number of pilots needed to operate them. Also, a potentially lesser recognized element of this is that China of course plans to add 5th-gen carrier-launched aircraft such as a new maritime variant of its J-31. Therefore, having a trained and ready group of pilots prepared to operate carrier or amphib-operated aircraft could enable pilots to quickly transition from platforms such as a J-15 to newly arriving 5th-Gen assets.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
This article first appeared last year and is being republished due to reader interest.