James Holmes

Relax, China’s Aircraft Carrier Is Fine

Recent Features

James Holmes

Relax, China’s Aircraft Carrier Is Fine

Reports of Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning’s death are greatly exaggerated.

Relax, China’s Aircraft Carrier Is Fine
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Reports of Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning’s death — or debilitating wounds — are greatly exaggerated. The flattop suffered some sort of steam leak that prompted her crew to stop at sea and conduct repairs before resuming operations. The news comes from Robert Beckhusen of War Is Boring, who relays a Sina.com story that Liaoning suffered a “steam explosion” following “a leak in ‘the machine oven compartment to the water pipes.’”

Beckhusen denies that PLA Navy leaders will decommission the flattop because of mechanical problems. (By raising the possibility, though, he seems to imply they might.) He does speculate that the accident will force the navy to relegate her to training duty.

Would an engineering casualty represent a setback unseen in the annals of naval history? Hardly. All sea services have been there, done that, and will likely find themselves there again. It’s doubtful such travails will induce PLA Navy officials to overreact, demoting Liaoning from whatever plans they have in mind for her. China’s first aircraft carrier is probably destined to serve as a training platform in any event — a ship used to groom China’s first generation of naval aviators, flight-deck crewmen, and air-group commanders. She will remain such despite minor hardware problems belowdecks.

Indeed, if suffering zero engineering casualties were the standard for maritime competence, the briny main would be empty of shipping. Think about what going to sea involves. A warship is a metal box largely encased in an environment hostile to metal — namely seawater and salt air. And it’s a box packed with machinery, flammables and explosives of various sorts, and human bodies. In such surroundings, rare is the seaman without a hair-raising tale to tell about fires or floods, equipment failures, and sundry mishaps.

I could spin a few such yarns myself. One involves a pipe springing a pinhole leak. And spraying fuel. On a steaming boiler. While crewmen are loading ammunition. At anchor. In rough weather. And that was a good-luck ship for the most part. Murphy’s Law — a.k.a. s*#t happens — is an iron law of marine engineering, and of seafaring writ large. When it does happen, you fix the damage, learn whatever lessons there are to learn, and move on.

Anyway. There must be translation problems with the Sina.com story, judging from Beckhusen’s account. What an “oven compartment” is, for example, heaven only knows. Modern warships carry ovens mainly to prepare meals. Yum. Oh, and electricians use specialized ovens from time to time to work on motors. I’d be gobsmacked if Liaoning’s main machinery spaces — the compartments where the main engines spin the propellers round and turbines generate electrical power — housed any.

Now, steamships use boilers to boil water and thus generate steam. The fires that boil the water blaze within bulky furnaces within the boilers. Many ships propelled by diesel engines, gas turbines, or nuclear reactors also use auxiliary steam. You’ll find boilers in the innards of many vessels, nuclear and conventional alike. Presumably the fine folks at Sina.com garbled the story of a problem with a boiler furnace. Or, more likely, of some lesser incident that released steam into Liaoning’s engineering spaces.

But again, let’s not extrapolate too much from a few sketchy facts. Yes, it’s doubtless true, as Beckhusen observes, that Liaoning, nee the Soviet carrier Varyag, was a “basket case” before Beijing purchased and Chinese shipwrights upgraded her. So what? The vessel was an unfinished hulk, left to decay when the Soviet Union fell. Few unfinished hulks are seaworthy or battleworthy. Yes, engineering woes have bedeviled vessels of Soviet build. The Soviet Navy never mastered certain maritime technologies. Nor was material upkeep uppermost among its priorities, judging from the rusty ships Soviet mariners used to steam around. That legacy of neglect probably lingers — no matter how expertly Chinese shipfitters refurbished the vessel.

And yes, the PLA Navy is loath to come clean about mishaps. It serves an autocratic government, and autocracies hate confessing weakness in public. That’s doubly true when their leaders have touted a piece of kit like Liaoning as the bearer of the nation’s maritime destiny. Such claims rouse popular expectations that must be met. Trouble ensues when the leadership pins its political standing on a widget and that widget underperforms. Officialdom fears that citizens marinated in rhetoric about China’s triumphant return to the sea will equate material failings with ideological bankruptcy. The Chinese Communist regime’s legitimacy could take a beating.

But autocratic powers aren’t alone in this, are they? All big institutions — including those populating liberal societies — exhibit defensive reflexes. No navy is exempt from hardware troubles, and no navy likes admitting to them. In recent years, for instance, the Indian Navy underwent such a spate of incidents — including the loss of a submarine alongside the pier — that its chief of naval staff, or top uniformed officer, resigned his post. The Royal Australian Navy’s Collins-class submarine is well-known for reliability problems. The Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth­-class carriers and the French Navy flattop Charles de Gaulle have been punchlines in Europe owing to structural and engineering flaws.

Liaoning, it seems, is hardly unique in its growing pains. Indeed, the U.S. Navy, the world’s premier high-seas fighting force, is combating woes of its own. Lance Bacon catalogues some of them over at Navy Times. To name one, shipyard workers recently found unexpected problems on board the nuclear-powered carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, forcing the navy to extend her stay in the yards to make extra repairs. Postponing her return to active service had a cascade effect on the rest of the carrier force, compelling sister ship Harry S. Truman to accelerate her own maintenance and deployment schedule. Truman will put to sea in Ike’s stead. Spirits will doubtless be high among crew and families.

Preventive maintenance is the surest way to forestall accidents — much as the responsible motorists among you get the oil changed and the tires rotated regularly. Yet in Bacon’s telling, navy officials estimate that undermanned crews are performing 40 percent of preventive maintenance incorrectly or leaving it undone altogether. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — in marine engineering as in everyday life. Neglect begets mechanical failures.

So sure, maybe the incident on board Liaoning was grave enough to deflate Beijing’s expectations of naval-aviation glory. More likely, she suffered an engineering fault of an inglorious but all-too-common type. One imagines Chinese seafarers will muddle through — much as their brethren do in other navies.