As noted by Douglas Paal here over the weekend, in recent weeks, the Chinese navy has taken big steps toward deploying its first aircraft carrier, underscoring the nation's rapid ascent as a world power. Twelve years after Beijing purchased the incomplete Russian aircraft carrier Varyag, the 60,000-ton vessel — renamed Shi Lang — is reportedly on track to begin sea trials this summer. Shi Lang's first planes are nearly ready, too. In late April, the first J-15 fighter, an unlicensed copy of the Russian Su-33, appeared in navy colours.
A seaworthy vessel and operational naval fighters will provide the backbone of the Chinese navy's evolving carrier force. But they are not, in themselves, adequate for a useful carrier force. Leaving aside the huge manpower, planning and logistical demands of a modern aircraft carrier, there are additional hardware needs that China hasn’t yet met.
To enable true, long-range carrier operations, the People's Liberation Army Navy still needs to develop, build and field carrier-capable airborne command-and-control aircraft plus aerial tankers and electronic-warfare planes. Without these so-called ‘enablers,’ Shi Lang and her J-15s represent little more than training assets, with few real-world applications.
Just ask the Russians. Admiral Kuznetsov, the Russian navy's sole carrier and Shi Lang's sister ship, has completed fewer than 10 operational or training cruises since commissioning in 1996 — and none of the cruises were more than a couple months in duration. More to the point, she has never seen combat. The US Navy's 11 supercarriers, by contrast, spend around a third of their 50-year service lives at sea and see steady combat.
Admiral Kuznetsov's problems are manifold. Mechanical faults and inadequate crew training are exacerbated by the Russian navy's irregular funding. Also, her air wing simply isn't very practical. With just a dozen or so Su-33s plus a handful of radar- and sonar-equipped helicopters, Admiral Kuznetsov can’t reliably deliver sustained combat airpower against a serious foe.
By comparison, US carriers — and France's sole flattop — are lavishly equipped, with balanced air wings containing two types of fighters plus fixed-wing E-2 radar planes and, in the US Navy's case, specialized EA-6B or EA-18G radar-jamming planes for the suppression of enemy air defenses. US and French naval fighters are equipped with fuel pods and reelable hoses that allow them to refuel other planes in flight. The Russian Su-33s also have this capability, but it's not clear that their pilots are trained for it any more.
Lacking the diverse air wing of American and French carriers, in the near term Shi Lang will be as limited as Admiral Kuznetsov. Her fighters will have poor range because they can’t be refueled in mid-air. They will be all but blind, guided only by their own radars and those of Shi Lang herself. And they will be vulnerable to enemy air defenses.
The PLA is aware of these limitations and is working to address them. Beijing has purchased Russian Ka-31 helicopters fitted with aerial radars and is also experimenting with a Z-8 helicopter — a copy of the French Super Frelon — equipped with a radar. The PLA could use these choppers as stepping stones to a more robust command-and-control capability.
But that still leaves aerial refueling and electronic warfare as critical gaps for Shi Lang and any future Chinese carriers. The dawn of Chinese carrier aviation is imminent, but the full daylight of mature Chinese carrier aviation is still many years away.