Debate about China’s aircraft-carrier programme is reaching a crescendo with reports that the retired Soviet flattop Varyag, refitted and renamed Shi Lang for the Manchu conqueror of Taiwan, may leave the pier under its own power for the first time as early as this week. Whenever it transpires, the maiden voyage of the Shi Lang will mark a milestone in China’s ascent to great sea power. Most commentators—myself among them—agree that the ship will remain a training carrier for the foreseeable future. But there are variations in how training carriers do their jobs. A more granular look at how the US Navy has handled the training function may suggest how the Shi Lang’s future may unfold, and that of China’s navy with it.
The taxonomy of US carrier training since World War II contains three main paradigms. First, there’s the USS Lexington model. The Lexington, a veteran of the Pacific War, was based in my hometown of Pensacola, Florida until shortly after the Cold War. It was a familiar part of the city skyline. Nicknamed ‘Lady Lex,’ it was exclusively a training ship. With its wooden flight deck and its small size relative to supercarriers, the Lexington was entirely unsuitable for launching and recovering frontline combat aircraft. But it was more than adequate for launching and recovering trainers, which are smaller and lighter than the planes that comprise an operational carrier’s air wing. Its defensive weaponry had been removed. The ship had zero battle capacity.
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The second model is USS John F. Kennedy. When the navy retired the elderly Lexington in 1991, aspiring aviators had no dedicated training ship. The service initially designated supercarrier USS Forrestal for training duty, only to decommission it instead. Starting with the 1993 ‘Bottom-Up Review,’ the navy reclassified the Mayport, Florida-based Kennedy as an ‘operational reserve/training carrier.’ ‘John’ performed this hybrid function until 1997, when commanders clamoured for it to return to the deployment rotation alongside its 11 active-duty brethren. It rendered training service when not forward-deployed. This halfway arrangement lasted until 2000, when the Kennedy formally re-joined the active carrier fleet.
The final model from US naval history is the post-2000 model, which devotes no platform exclusively to flight training. The US Navy tactical training cycle envisions an 18 month operating rhythm in which a ship works up for six months, deploys overseas for six months, and comes home for six months of extended overhaul. The workup period includes numerous ‘local operations’ in which the crew undergoes exercises, battle training, and a murderer’s row of technical inspections and assist visits. Navy commanders arrange for a flattop that’s preparing for deployment to offer deck time for student aviators. In 2008, for example, USS Abraham Lincoln spent several days letting new pilots catapult from and land on its flight deck.
Which model most closely approximates the Shi Lang’s future? It will act as China’s Lexington for some time, until the first generation of Chinese naval aviators accumulates enough experience operating from carrier decks to start prosecuting combat missions. And when I say ‘some time,’ it could be quite some time. Even after developing concepts for operating fixed-wing jet aircraft from carriers, the US Navy and Marine Corps lost thousands of airframes and lives perfecting sound techniques. Reports retired Capt. Robert ‘Barney’ Rubel, dean of naval warfare studies at the Naval War College, the two sea services lost 776 aircraft and 535 airmen in 1954 alone. History won’t spare Chinese aviators the pain of learning their craft.
Nevertheless, some John F. Kennedy could be mixed into the Shi Lang’s Lexington repertoire before long. Unlike the Lexington, the Shi Lang is fully armed. It will likely prove capable of limited operational missions once it fields an experienced air wing. The Kennedy experiment suggests that operational commanders demand the assets they need to perform their own missions. Training sometimes yields to operational requirements. Or, Chinese naval commanders might fulfil both roles while training a corps of aviators. For example, contested South China Sea waters could make excellent training ground for flight operations, much as the Lexington plied the Gulf of Mexico during its life as a training ship.
Consider the signal an aggressive aviation training regimen would broadcast to Southeast Asian audiences. Even during purely training cruises, the Shi Lang would put Manila, Hanoi, and other rival claimants to South China Sea islands and waters on notice that China’s navy has a formidable new capability in the making. Even while it remains a Lexington, then, the Shi Lang’s endeavours will announce that Beijing will soon have a battle-ready John F. Kennedy at its disposal—and that even more capable flattops will join the fleet in due course. Shaping political conditions in Southeast Asia constitutes sound naval diplomacy.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.