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China’s Aircraft Carrier Testing Weapons in South China Sea

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China’s Aircraft Carrier Testing Weapons in South China Sea

China’s sole aircraft carrier is holding naval drills in the South China Sea this week.

China’s Aircraft Carrier Testing Weapons in South China Sea

The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) sole operational aircraft carrier, the 60,000-ton Liaoning, a retrofitted Soviet-era Admiral Kuznetsov-class multirole aircraft carrier, is conducting military drills in the South China Sea this week, according to China’s Ministry of Defense.

“A naval formation consisting of aircraft carrier Liaoning has conducted take-off and landing drills in the South China Sea on Monday,” the defense ministry reported in January 3. “The formation, which is on a ‘cross-sea area’ training exercise, involved J-15 fighter jets, as well as several ship-borne helicopters.”

A defense ministry source said that the drill “provided important experience in the build-up of combat capability of the aircraft carrier formation.” In a January 4 press briefing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson corroborated the Liaoning’s activities stating that “the carrier and accompanying ships are testing weapons and equipment and running exercises in the relevant waters of the South China Sea.”

As my colleague Ankit Panda noted previously, the aircraft carrier had a busy couple of weeks with exercises in the Bohai and Yellow Seas and also entered the Western Pacific for the first time. The Liaoning entered the South China Sea in late December passing 90 nautical miles south of Taiwan’s southernmost point.

The carrier formation is likely composed of a number of Jiangkai-II-class (Type 054A) frigates and Luyang-III-class (Type 052D) destroyers and possibly one to two Yuan-class (Type 039A) or Song-class (Type 039) submarines. The carrier serves as a training ship and test platform for PLAN carrier-based naval aviation.

As I noted in November 2016 (See: “Next Stop South China Sea? China’s 1st Aircraft Carrier ‘Ready for Combat’”):

The Liaoning can accommodate an air wing of 24 Shenyang J-15 multirole fighter jets, a variant of fourth-generation Sukhoi Su-33 twin-engines air superiority fighters, and up to ten rotary wing aircraft including Changshe Z-18, Ka-31, and Harbin Z-9 helicopters. (…) The carrier is fitted with an underpowered aircraft -launching system, a so-called ski-jump assisted Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) launch system, for fighter jets aboard the carrier.

Due to limits imposed by ski-jump takeoff and arrested carrier landings, aircraft taking off from the Liaoning will have limited operational range and have to carry lighter armaments as I explained:

Given the STOBAR system, aircraft launched from the carrier will also have a more limited operational range due to the fact that they need to expend a considerable amount of fuel during take-off in comparison to aircraft launched with a catapult system as is the case in the U.S. Navy.

The Chinese defense ministry has not announced for how long the Liaoning will remain in the South China Sea.  There is a good chance that the new carrier will eventually be used to reinforce China’s territorial claims in the disputed waters. The Liaoning was commissioned in 2012 and until now has not been assigned to any of the three major fleets of the PLAN.