One Landing Does Not Make a Carrier
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One Landing Does Not Make a Carrier

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Last Sunday China’s leadership announced that a J-15 tactical jet had landed on the Liaoning, the refitted Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag, for the first time. The news came as little surprise. The flattop has been in commission for over a year now and has undergone a series of sea trials preparing it to conduct flight operations. True to its tradition of fleet experimentation—a praiseworthy tradition to my mind—the PLA Navy has trodden a leisurely, methodical path to carrier aviation.So let’s not hyperventilate. Trapping a J-15 at sea represented no “show of force” of any consequence. It was a milestone to an eventual show of force, and a modest-sized milestone at that.

The PLA habitually keeps the testing and evaluation of new hardware out of public view, making it hard for outsiders to gauge China’s military progress. Still, suppose the carrier’s hull and machinery have reached some acceptable standard of readiness. Now our focus should shift to the human side. Many navies of the past have put working aircraft carriers to sea. Few have found grooming a corps of naval aviators quick or easy. Success has eluded some of them—as it may elude China’s navy.

Sometimes the roadblocks are bureaucratic. During the 1920s and 1930s, for example, British governments subjected the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm to an uneasy system of “dual control.” Both the Admiralty, the ministry in charge of the Royal Navy, and the Air Ministry, which oversaw the Royal Air Force—a force that operated from ashore—had to agree to every advance in naval aviation. “In the personnel area,” notes King’s College professor Geoff Till, “dual control reduced the flow of recruits into [the] Fleet Air Arm, slowed their training, and impeded their promotion.” Both in hardware and human terms, naval aviation remained a stepchild of more pressing, more glamorous missions such as strategic bombing and fighter air defense. Whether Beijing will liberate its own naval air arm from bureaucratic dysfunctions that could stunt its growth remains to be seen.

Sometimes culture gets in the way. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), for instance, seemed gripped by a kind of guild mentality vis-à-vis aircraft and combat pilots. Japanese officers were obsessed with quality at the expense of quantity. During World War II, as Williamson Murray and Allan Millett point out, it took the IJN fully fifty months to train a flier. The U.S. Navy did it in eighteen months while rotating its pilots through combat theaters to gain stick time under battle conditions. The result: the U.S. Navy could replace pilots and aircraft lost in action. As the war ground on, the Japanese could manufacture planes but had fewer and fewer pilots to man them. Nor did the IJN infuse combat experience back into the training community. Seasoned pilots stayed out in the fleet until they were shot down rather than rotate back to Japan to train their successors.

Whether Beijing will avoid such ill-conceived practices is another open question. If not, the PLA Navy’s will be slow to achieve a critical mass of experienced aircrews. And lastly, technology can interfere. Launching and recovering jet aircraft from floating airports is no easy feat. Robert “Barney” Rubel, our dean of naval warfare studies, recalls that the U.S. Navy lost 776 and 535 airmen in a single year, 1954. Will the PLA Navy undergo travails of such scope? I doubt it. Technology has moved on since the 1950s, while Chinese airmen and seamen can learn from past navies’ failures. But I also doubt history will exempt the PLA Navy from bureaucratic, cultural, and technological pitfalls.

As the strategist Clubber Lang once put it: “Prediction? Pain!”

Comments
49
hushashi
January 12, 2013 at 00:31

Very interesting.  It sounds like you are familiar with the "Chinese characteristics" of "Capitalism with Chinese characteristics" often said by leaders in the past.
Could you tell me, what exactly are these "characteristics", it sounds to me like you are close to defining them.  I would love to hear your knowlege.

hushashi
January 12, 2013 at 00:28

What a mess that thing will make when it goes haywire on a flight deck full of fueled and armed aircraft… as you know it enevitably will, at some point…

bill
December 24, 2012 at 15:04

china are building six more aircraft carriers, Africa and Asia will wake up one morning to the projected power.

Linh_My
December 3, 2012 at 10:52

"Yes. I suspect the PLA will be at least as incompetent as the US military, perhaps even more so. But Americans should not denigrate or mock what the PLAN has accomplished here. Instead, they should remember Pearl Harbor and prepare for the future of war."
That is the key. The least incompatent Military wins. For a while, this should favor America as it's Military has an abundance of Combat Veterans.

HAN Fei
December 2, 2012 at 17:25

Yep, "one landing does not make a carrier". But, one operational MAGLEV railway in Shanghai, which was provided by Chengdu Aircraft Industry group, approached the EMALS for the Chinese future carrier.

a_obama
December 2, 2012 at 05:51

Actually, not so alien and not so different between the two kinds gov'ts, at least in the case of Texas Secession petitions. Still, something is different. The Chinese learned much earlier and have accumulated more experience, while the so-called democratic Western countries are trailing far behind, but catching up very quickly.
The Chinese believe in the collective survival. They believe "There will be no single egg remaining unbroken if the holding nest is overthrown." So, they put the surcurity of the nest (State)  higher than that of individual eggs (persons). In an opposite direction, the Westerners believe in "There is no need to have the nest at all if not all eggs are surcured." However, as history and conventional wisdom have proven, the countries that have no political will and military muscule to protect themselves will likely be outlived by those that have, this raises a challenging question to the Western countries: are you ready to die before the death of China? If you are, what are the points for you to argue your democratic value when you nevertheless will die soon? If not, how will you preserve the State without infringing individual citizen's rights? 
Apparently, the Western countries are not willing to die now. All talks about democratic value are just empty talks, a.k.a. propogandas. Have you seen how the democratically elected gov't in the White House is handling Texasian appeals to secede from the USA: turn a deft ear to the poor petitioners and hide the US Constitution behind the toilet in the WH. Otherewise, the US will collapse tormorrow!
Democratic or not, you have to preserve your national institutions first before you can talk about individual rights, or there is no reason to talk about individualism at all. If there is no concept of State, will there be any ideas of individualism?
If you dissagree, and if you happen to be a Teapartyer, I encourage you to take arms to go to the Wild West to support the Texasians, because they have not voted for the Obama administration in the first place, and because they have the Constitution-guarenteed right to secede from the Union if they are not happy with it! You will soon find where our democratic rights are, and how much they value against the US national interests!

Michael
December 2, 2012 at 02:38

Gautam, 
               Your post, actually the attitude reflected by your post proves my point. You created a false sense of security by somehow finding fault with Chinese advancement in weaponry… this created a context where Americans keep getting surprised by Chinese modernization. I doubt if you are able to read between the line or didn't understand the point of my post but whatever. Anyway your citations are also wrong. China, per recent Pentagon estimate, has achieved MIRV capabilities. Same goes for potential nuclear triad with capable nuclear submarines. Two docked station portend what is yet to come … do you seriuosly believe that two docked station only represent two docked station? It represents a trend, foreshadows what is to yet to come … Same goes for stealth fighter … it is a technology demostrator but the point which you failed to appreciate is that Americans never expected this exactly because of complacent attitude about Chinese capabilitites. 

Frank
December 2, 2012 at 01:48

 
Well said.
 
American CEOs want to suck your blood. Chinese CEOs give blood. 

Frank
December 2, 2012 at 01:42

 
Only Chinese are willing to build their "New Great Walls" with blood and flesh. Nobody. I repeat, Nobody on this earth will.
 
There is ONLY one country that has long lasting uninterrupted history.

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