The Debate

China’s New Aircraft Carrier: A Long Path Ahead

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The Debate

China’s New Aircraft Carrier: A Long Path Ahead

While China’s new carrier has made big strides, the development of a modern carrier strike group will take time.

A quick update on China's new aircraft carrier the Liaoning courtesy of the People's Daily:

"China's first aircraft carrier "Liaoning Ship" has been carrying out various tests and training as scheduled since it berthed at a naval port in Qingdao in east China's Shandong province on February 27, 2013. The "Liaoning Ship" will make an oceangoing voyage at a golden opportunity in 2013.

Currently, the naval port for aircraft carrier is able to provide in-port support for the "Liaoning Ship," and is still being streamlined. The naval port is adjacent to mountains and the Yellow Sea, and the "Liaoning Ship" can sail directly into the sea from the dock that is at a right angle to the coastline. The enormous "Liaoning Ship" berths at one side of the dock, firmly fixed to the dock by 16 ham-like cables. The dock adopts a jetty-type structure, without much visual difference from other naval ports."

The above report seems to show that China's first carrier is pressing ahead in its development. While the vessel is clearly making strides towards becoming a regular oceangoing carrier, it still has a long way to go.

Carriers don't operate in a bubble or go to sea on their own. Before we even begin to talk about the complexity of landing advanced fighters on the flight deck routinely without incident or the logistics of running a modern carrier, there are the support ships that are needed to defend and supply the carrier.

As our own Naval Diplomat noted, several months back:

"Carriers steam in company with a coterie of escorts and support vessels. The PLA Navy, however, has not yet filled out the remainder of a carrier task force. The navy’s newest guided-missile destroyers appear adequate for air-defense purposes, but anti-submarine warfare remains a puzzling shortfall—particularly since China’s likely adversaries, the United States and Japan, excel at undersea operations. Combat logistics—oilers, ammunition ships, refrigerated stores ships—remains another glaring shortcoming for the PLA Navy. These unglamorous but crucial vessels can replenish men-of-war, allowing them to stay at sea for long intervals without returning to port. Chinese task forces will remain vulnerable and tethered to shore logistical support until shipbuilders plug these gaps in the inventory."

So while China's new carrier has certainly made huge strides in its development from being a partially completed dream of the Soviet Navy to the Liaoning, the ship must be considered part of the development of a larger goal — the creation of a Chinese carrier strike group. The development of such a potent and complex asset takes time. Flight crews need countless hours of training to start. Kinks in carrier operations need to be sorted out. The list could go on and on.

For now, China's carrier serves as a symbol of Beijing's evolving maritime power — and its potential in the years to come.