In the decades since the end of the Second World War, the U.S. Navy’s carrier strike groups have been the dominant force across the world’s oceans. Even the Soviet Union never really managed to challenge the U.S. Navy’s mastery of the seas. But as of late, there is growing concern that China’s People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) may be stepping up to the plate.
The Soviets mainly focused their efforts on a “sea denial” strategy using a combination of Backfire bombers, submarines and surface combatant armed with long-range anti-ship missiles. The People’s Republic of China also seemed to be focusing purely on developing an anti-access strategy using similar methodology. But like the Soviets toward the end of the Cold War, the Chinese seem to be intent on developing a blue water surface fleet that might one day be able to challenge the U.S. Navy on the high seas.
Picking up where the Soviets left off, China has refurbished the decaying hulk of the Varyag—sister ship to Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov—and recommissioned her as the Liaoning. But the Liaoning is just a starting point—the PLAN appears to be using the ship as a training tool to develop the skills necessary to operate a carrier air wing at sea. It’s a skill that took the U.S. Navy decades to master after much trial and error.
To master the air wing component, China appropriated an early Soviet prototype of the Su-33, which is a carrier-based version of the Flanker air superiority fighter. The Russian aircraft gave the Chinese a leg up in the development of a carrier-based warplane called the J-15. Further, the Chinese are developing a host of support aircraft that will also serve in a future PLAN carrier air wing. Right now, that air wing is composed of twenty-four J-15 fighters, six Z-18F anti-submarine warfare helicopters, four Z-18J airborne early warning helicopters and a pair of Z-9C rescue helicopters.
The Pentagon says in its 2015 report on Chinese military power that Liaoning and its air wing, as currently configured, are not really capable of projecting power over great distances—even if it were fully operational. The ship is too small and is best suited for providing fleet air defense and extending air cover over a fleet operating far from shore. “The Liaoning will not enable long-range power projection similar to U.S. Nimitz-class carriers,” the report states.
The fundamental problem is that even though the J-15 is a better performing aircraft in terms of pure aerodynamic performance compared to the U.S. Navy’s Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the Russian ski-jump design imposes severe limitations on the payload and fuel the Flanker can carry. “Liaoning’s smaller size limits the number of aircraft it can embark, while the ski-jump configuration limits restricts fuel and ordnance load,” the Pentagon report states. That’s not just the Pentagon’s assessment; the Chinese have also acknowledged the issue. Perhaps most telling is that the Soviet Union’s follow-on to the Kuznetsov-class design, Ulyanovsk, incorporated steam catapults.
China is expected to build or may already be building follow-on carriers—and the Pentagon expects that the PLAN might build several—which are likely to be designed to use the J-15’s full capabilities. In the best case scenario, it will take quite some time for the People’s Republic to field a fleet that’s anywhere remotely close to being able to challenge the U.S. Navy. It takes Newport News the better part of a decade to build a single Nimitz or Ford-class supercarrier and that yard has decades of experience. China has no experience building any ship the size of an aircraft carrier—even a moderate-sized one like Liaoning, which was structurally completed in Crimea.
Even if China completes carriers that utilize the full potential of their embarked aircraft, that’s not the only factor to consider. While the Super Hornet might not be the fastest or most maneuverable jet in the sky, it does have excellent sensors and avionics. More importantly, the U.S. Navy’s Super Hornets are not fighting alone. A modern carrier air wing works as an integrated team—especially as Naval Integrated Fire Control—Counter Air (NIFC-CA) becomes operational.
With NIFC-CA, Super Hornets, EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes, Aegis destroyers, cruisers and the other assets at the strike group commander’s disposal work as a seamless team that sees the same picture. That means than Aegis cruiser can fire a Standard SM-6 missile over the horizon beyond the ship’s line-of-sight by using data from an orbiting E-2D. Another example might be a Super Hornet launching a Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) at a Type 052D destroyer based on an ellipse generated by a flight of EA-18Gs that are using time difference of arrival to triangulate the enemy ship’s position.
The bottom line that China might develop an aircraft carrier, it might develop an air wing and it might even develop a battle group that would go to sea with the flattop, but it’s more than about just the hardware. It will take time for the PLAN to get to level of competency where it can have any real shot at going head-to-head with the U.S. Navy in the Western Pacific. Will they eventually get there? Possibly, but it might take decades.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.