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!”