Chinese Carrier Lacks Fighters
Image Credit: US Navy

Chinese Carrier Lacks Fighters


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.   

May 4, 2012 at 01:45

I stopped reading when it suggested that the J-15 is a “copy” of the Su-33? How can one jet (the J-15 utilizes indigenous technologies such as engines and radar and bears no ties to the Flanker besides its airframe design) be a copy of another when it features a completely different set of technologies and upgrades?

Voodoo Economics
May 10, 2011 at 16:51

No matter how you explain it, it is still voodo economics, designed to make the stupid peasant feel good. Getting that 10,000 yuans to the hand of every peasant in China is a whole different matter.

100 Trillions? hahahah…

May 10, 2011 at 16:45

Frank said: “F-35B is no match to J-15, not to mention the new stealth version J-18.”


The technology on the F-35 is the combination of America’s 20-plus years of leading innovation in stealth technology. It is so far ahead of its time that even the Russian (who are the real master of Chinese defense technology) have a hard time matching it. Both the Russians and Chinese only have fielded prototypes with a lot of bluffing about their technologies on paper (boasting how they could match or defeat the F-22s, blah-blah…). While China is toying around with Russian-copied technology, the U.S. is making big leaps in developing the 6th generation fighters.

As for the much hyped Chinese aircraft carrier: How is that 60,000 ton of non-nuclear, no-superiority fighters, inexperienced personnel ship would go against a mighty 100,000+ ton of nuclear powered U.S. aircraft carrier with more than half a century experience and all the fighters, weapons complimenting it?

John Chan
May 10, 2011 at 14:13

When James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara posted their articles here, there were tons of comments pointing out their ignorance, as well as they did not know what the hell they were talking about.

A puppet is a proxy of foreign power, Lee Myung-bak is a puppet of the US; if one day PLA stations in SKorea, then Lee Myun-bak is a communist puppet.

May 10, 2011 at 06:09

John Chan,
You are a smart guy so please do not ask this kind of silly question! You know better than me!The US actually does not need any help from China’s buying its UST-bonds. Many many articles relating to this issue have been written by well-known American economists and the latest written by JOSEPH GAGNON &GARY HUFBAUER on April 25, 2011 on Foreign Affairs , I repost the link below so you could have a glance at it if you’ve not read it yet! China’s practice of buying UST-bonds is not welcome!!You really think China itself & the US will be broke?

May 10, 2011 at 05:22

@Tango I agree. All Chinese fighters are either russian or direct copy (read:stolen) of Russian designs. Heck, even their J-20 is using Russian engine.
China is holding US T bonds in huge quantity but that means USA has command over China’s fund not the other way around. Seignorage gains play an important part here and understand that an country who can print unlimited amount of global tender will not collapse. If it does it will take all international market, especially China, with it.

May 10, 2011 at 05:14

@Frank Your lack of knowledge amazes me! None of those wars were started by India.
My comment was centered on idiots who post flaming remarks about other nations. You proved my point wonderfully. Thanks. :)

John Chan
May 9, 2011 at 22:59

@Tom, indeed I am confused, I thought Americans(US) were very patriotic and they loved their nation very much; can’t the American(US) donate their national IOU ( treasuries and bonds) to their government and help out their government a bit? If they do, it surly would stop rest of world lecturing the US on living beyond its means. Or American(US) do not walk the talk when it comes to the doing the real and hard work of patriotism?

May 9, 2011 at 18:31

You boast too much about j15s & j18s. These are just the stuffs copied from Russian Su-33 fighter jets without any kind of stealth technology!! The naked truth, sadly,is China has not a bit of innovation itsself except copying and pirating, and in some case stealing other countries’technologies for its illegaly own use! Yes, The US is currently the big important customer of China but never its borrower!! China bought trillion dollars of UST-bond just for its currency manipulation for its own export advantage over other countries, not for lending money to the US! Be clear here!

May 9, 2011 at 16:24

It only takes 4 days to reach Nicobar Islands from Hainan base.

May 9, 2011 at 16:22

You do not fuel the aircraft carrier from air.

You need oilers from the side while the group is traveling.

May 9, 2011 at 16:21

Not yet.

May 9, 2011 at 16:19

India fought multiple border wars against its only two nuclear armed neighbors. All other nuclear powers are settled most of their differences. India still is very hostile to these two nuclear armed giants.

Indians must be those idiots you are talking about. Right?

May 9, 2011 at 16:09

F-35B is no match to J-15, not to mention the new stealth version J-18.

F-35B is smaller and has shorter range and fewer payloads.

That said, there is very little chance for these two to fight against each other.

China is not going to attack the best customer and borrower. They depend on Americans to work hard to pay back the loan. Americans are not stupid to risk their comfortable homes to fight China.

The most likely large scale naval war in the near future is between China and India. However, India is not buying F-35B. They bought Eurofighter. It makes more sense to use Eurofighter for its carriers.

However, Indians are not good at logical thinking. They might buy F-35B also.
However, India does not have an aircraft that can provide AWAC aerial radars, aerial refueling and electronic warfare. India does not have capability to develop one either.

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