Last week, I suggested that the future of Liaoning may, with the construction of newer Chinese carriers, lay primarily in a training role. This was the role played by HIJMS Hosho in the early years of the Japanese naval aviation program, and by USS Langley in the first years of the U.S. program. But it’s also possible that the PLAN has more definite plans for Liaoning and her half-sister, Shandong. Specifically, it’s worth considering whether the PLAN intends to use Liaoning and Shandong as part of a system of nuclear bastion defense.
The design concept for the first Soviet aircraft carriers differed considerably from that of their U.S. Navy counterparts. Instead of supporting expeditionary operations, or carrying out strikes against high value targets, Soviet carriers were designed to deter or defeat Western forays into protected bastions for ballistic missile submarines. This included flying air defense against U.S. anti-submarine warfare aircraft (whether carrier or land-based), as well as having the capability of destroying invading U.S. surface ships and submarines (through SSMs and ASW helicopters). The VSTOL Kievs and the STOBAR Kuznetsovs could only launch short-range fighters, but this was all they needed in order to maintain a defensive perimeter.
This concept animated the design of the Kiev-class carriers, and of the Kuznetsov-class carriers that succeeded them. The Ulyanovsk-class, cancelled during the collapse of the Soviet Union, would have been the first true fleet carriers in the U.S. sense of the term, able to conduct long-range deployments with a multi-faceted airgroup capable of sustained strike operations.
In the event, you make do with what you have. When Putin needed a propaganda victory in Syria, he ordered the curmudgeonly Kuznetsov around Europe and into the Mediterranean, where it grudgingly pretended to be a strike carrier for a few days before heading home for a nice, long refit. And like Kuznetsov, Liaoning and Shandong may at some point to pushed into uncomfortable operations; thus is the flexibility of a large, flat-decked aircraft-carrying ship.
China has now developed its own boomers, which have technical capabilities making them more apt for a bastion strategy than for an isolated, deep sea hiding role. And while the Chinese have used Liaoning thus far primarily in a training role, as its pilot cadre matures, the actual operational role for she and her sister may become that which they were designed for; defensive carriers. The availability of two such ships, especially when operating at fairly short range from base, would make it easier for China to keep one carrier continuously in operation, supporting SSBN deterrent patrols.
All intelligence suggests that the next generation of Chinese carriers will, like the stillborn Ulyanovsks, be genuine long-range strike carriers in the U.S. Navy mold. But it appears possible that the PLAN may be thinking about the future of their fleet in evolutionary terms; each developmental plateau can contribute on its own, within specific strategic constraints. Fortunately for the PLAN, China has the resources to make such a diverse force work successfully.