60,000 Tons of Hype, or A Realistic Assessment of the New Chinese Aircraft Carrier Liaoning

Over the last few months, there’s been quite a bit of hubbub about the doings of the brand new Chinese aircraft Liaoning. She finished her refit for service late last year, and has spent these last few months working up with exercises in the Bohai Sea, including live-fire drills, further exercises in the South China Sea seen by many as a signal to the incoming Trump Administration in America, and finally a return to her new homeport of Qingdao through the Taiwan Strait, sending the entire Taiwanese military into a frenzy. Even Chinese media has been abuzz with the developments of the ship, the first aircraft carrier in People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) service, such as this editorial suggesting the ship make a cruise to the West Coast of the United States as a geopolitical gesture. To be frank, the ship is being rather overblown. A former Soviet warship, the Liaoning represents a fundamentally different approach to carrier warfare at sea than the United States Navy’s (USN) Nimitz and Ford class supercarriers that mass nearly twice her full load, and to presume that the ship means the PLAN is now nearly ready to oust the USN from East Asian waters is laughable. Rather than swallow these sixty thousand tons of hype, this is intended as a rational discussion of the ship and her actual capabilities.

Let’s start with a review of the history of the ship. The ship now known as the Liaoning was laid down December 6, 1985 as the Riga, the second member of the Kuznetsov class cruiser-carriers, known in Russia as Project 1143.5, a derivative of the Project 1143 Kiev class warships. As originally designed, Liaoning is not actually an aircraft carrier but a “тяжёлый авианесущий крейсер“, or in English, “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser”. This distinction from the pure aircraft carriers used by the navies of the rest of the world is not merely academic; the Kiev and Kuznetsov class ships are fundamentally different types of warships from Western carrier designs, intended to meet different strategic needs.

Under Soviet doctrine, the first and foremost roles of the navy were to shepherd the ballistic missile submarines and their nuclear second strike capability, and to protect the coastlines of the Soviet Union. In particular, the Kiev and Kuznetsov class ships were designed to act as a shield for the Soviet navy against American aircraft carriers and combined NATO naval assets, especially aviation and submarines. By contrast, American doctrine holds that aircraft carriers are first and foremost American military will made manifest, used for expeditionary sea control and attack, both fleet and land, as developed during World War 2. This means that the secondary role of aircraft carriers, filled in American doctrine by amphibious assault ships and the lighter carriers of NATO and East Asian allies, of local sea control, and sea and air defense is in fact the primary mission of the 1143 and 1143.5 ships. To that end, neither class carried any dedicated strike aircraft, but instead focused on a limited air wing of air superiority fighters and sub-hunting helicopters. Kuznetsov herself is fitted for 12 Sukhoi Su-33 naval fighters, with future plans including 20 MiG-29K fighters, as well as up to 24 Kamov Ka-27 helicopters for support missions like hunting submarines. This is a stark contrast to a Nimitz class aircraft carrier, which regularly puts to sea with about 60 F/A-18 multi-role fighters, and four to six E-2 Hawkeye airborne surveillance aircraft and a further six to eight Seahawk helicopters, with a surge capability of 130 F/A-18s in wartime. This also downplays another design difference, catapults. American aircraft carriers are equipped with catapults to launch aircraft off the deck at incredible speed (0-160 mph in two seconds), allowing American aircraft to launch with heavy loads of fuel and munitions. Liaoning, like the Kuznetsov and most other aircraft carriers in service or under construction today (notable exception French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is also equipped with catapults), instead relies on a ski jump arrangement to boost her aircraft into the air, severely limiting the total weight of fuel and stores that can be carried aboard.

The final distinguishing feature of the Kiev and Kuznetsov class units from those of any other navy was and is their formidable armament. Kuznetsov carries twelve P-700 “Granit” supersonic anti-ship missiles designed to sink American supercarriers, as well as a formidable array of short and medium-ranged air defense systems, including eight Kashtan close-in anti-missile systems, and 192 SA-N-9 medium-range surface-to-air missiles. This armament fit, particularly the suite of heavy cruise missiles reflects the change in the role of the air wing from general purpose to purely air superiority, putting the role of anti-surface work on the carrier/cruiser and its escorts.

Unfortunately for the Liaoning, she was only about 80% complete when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, having already been renamed Varyag in 1990 after the departure of Latvia from the Soviet Union. Her hull was complete, but very little of the interior fittings, particularly electronics and control systems were not installed. In 1998, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) purchased the ship through a front claiming the ship would be turned into a hotel and casino. Instead, when the ship arrived in the PLAN shipyards in Dalian in 2001, work immediately began restoring the ship for frontline service. She was finally commissioned into the PLAN on 25 September, 2012, and declared combat-ready four years later, in early November 2016. In August 2012, the ship completed sea trials and conducted her first flight operations, using the Shenyang J-15, a Chinese cousin of the Russian Sukhoi Su-33, that will form the backbone of her air arm.

Liaoning has seen extensive modifications compared to her unmodified sister Kuznetsov. Her heavy cruise missile battery has reportedly been removed, giving the ship more hangar space for her air wing. Chinese sensors, including a phased array search radar and targeting sensors for her point-defense systems have been installed, as well as air traffic control systems for her air wing and modern communications systems. The ship masses some 60,000 tons, roughly comparable to her sister, but only a fraction of the 100,000 ton USS Ronald Reagan, the Nimitz-class ship based in Japan. Her air group is rated at about 24 J-15 heavy air superiority fighters plus twelve helicopters, against Reagan‘s seventy-plus fighters, helicopters, and support aircraft. Most importantly, the PLAN does not consider the ship an operational combatant, but a research and training vessel directly controlled by the naval staff, useful for teaching itself how to use aircraft carriers.

An observer could be forgiven for missing that crucial detail, given the ship’s operational patterns and homeport. On her most recent sortie to the South China Sea where she conducted flight operations and live-fire exercises, she was escorted by two Type 54A frigates and three Type 52D destroyers, an escort complement comparable to a USN carrier battle group. Her homeport is also interesting as it is not the island of Hainan, the PLAN haven, but Qingdao. The choice of port is far from random, as Qingdao is one of the largest PLAN submarine bases. Submarines far and away present the most dangerous threat to aircraft carriers, as their stealth gives them the best chance to land their deadly torpedoes on target. As years of Cold War cat-and-mouse taught the world’s navies, the most effective sub-hunter is another submarine. Basing Liaoning with her most valuable guardians is certainly a move indicative of a combatant. However, whether the PLAN intends to use the ship purely as a training vessel or has drawn up plans to use the ship in combat, neither version is nearly the threat to US interests that the precedent of the ship is.

The United States Navy has a long history in naval aviation. The first flight off a ship was Eugene Ely off USS Birmingham in November of 1910. In 2022, the USN will celebrate 100 continuous years of naval aviation, starting with the commissioning of its first aircraft carrier USS Langley in March 1922. Across those years, the USN has consistently led naval aviation, first waging World War 2 across the Pacific Ocean against the Imperial Japanese Navy, then innovating into the new and strenuous requirements of the Jet Age in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Over the last 95 years, the United States Navy has spent considerable time, treasure, and blood learning and perfecting carrier aviation. This is the task the PLAN has set for itself to learn with Liaoning, discovering all the best practices and creating the trained, well-honed crews that make aircraft carriers not only the most complex weapons systems ever built by mankind, but also among the most powerful. To that end, Liaoning‘s smaller size is an advantage, since that means the PLAN’s floating laboratory will be smaller, cheaper to run, and simpler to learn on. This does little to diminish the immense size of the task before them however, learning how to effectively use a tool of statecraft it took the most powerful navy in the world decades to master.

To that strategy, as discussed above, Liaoning‘s size and design make her a defensive aircraft carrier, suitable for protecting other ships and projecting local sea control, but she is ill-suited for offensive operations. All indications, including official ones, indicate that the small number of aircraft carriers the PLAN is currently attempting to build are all similar designs, based on everything the PLAN learned during Liaoning‘s decade-long refit in Dalian. Even if her crew was fully capable of sustained, combat-stress flight operations, the ship’s limited air wing and gutted armament leave the ship merely supporting other elements of the PLAN in battle. She cannot meaningfully help invade Taiwan for example, other than providing another two dozen fighters somewhat closer to the battle zone. Thus, while the Taiwanese military cannot be terribly faulted for going on high alert when Liaoning sailed through the Strait on her way home, it was much more a geopolitical show for both sides, making all the necessary gestures about being tough on the bad guys, and collecting good electronic signals intelligence, than it was an actual military threat.

Rather, far more distressing than the ship herself are the series of precedents set by the PLAN over the last few months. The escort complement, Type 54A frigates and Type 52D destroyers, are all modern, powerful ships with capable sensors and deadly weapons that represent a quantum leap for a navy that until the 1980’s was considered a second-rate coastal and riverine navy, dependent on imported weapons for advanced capabilities. The rumors and speculation surrounding the new Type 55 destroyer put the class near the American Ticonderoga class cruisers for capability, giving China the surface escorts to effectively screen and protect their new capital ship(s). And whether Liaoning is ever deployed for combat, the simple fact that there are now sailors and officers in the PLAN familiar with the intricacies of carrier aviation mean that they will continue to learn and improve upon the Liaoning, especially as they move forward with construction of new, indigenously designed ships. For now those designs are limited to defensive ships like their elder sister/cousin. However, when taken in concert with China’s sophisticated defensive network, under the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy, these ships could give the PLAN the capability to hold the USN at arm’s length for significant periods of time. It is further possible that eventually the PLAN will transition into building true supercarriers the likes of which have only ever been fielded by the United States. The USN would be wise to heed this threat, and begin making its own moves now to hedge their bets against this rise, lest they find themselves on the wrong side of the power curve.

All of this will take decades to appear. Most analysts are skeptical China will commission the first indigenously built ship by the end of the decade, a feat contingent on launching the ship by the end of this year. Either way, the hubbub about Liaoning now seems to be rather much ado about nothing very much at all now. But that is only the present. Should these analysts turn their gaze to the near future, they might find something worthy of their hysteria. In the meantime, Liaoning will continue on her training mission, and China and the PLAN will continue to appreciate the free coverage in Western media.

For another, somewhat briefer assessment of Liaoning with some gorgeous graphics, I encourage you all to check out this report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

As always thank you for reading, and feel free to comment and share. – GP


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