Key point: Aircraft carriers will be critical to any future naval war.
China’s aircraft carrier program is maturing. The first photos have now emerged that show Liaoning operating with a decent clutch of J-15 fighters, as well as helicopters on deck. The aircraft are now painted in telltale battle gray, rather than the yellow used with the initial prototype aircraft. It is difficult to tell for sure, but one may assume that the testing and training regimen has been intense. True enough, the Liaoning was bought from Ukraine and it is, unlike American “big decks,” conventionally powered rather than relying on nuclear power. It also has a ski-jump bow to assist with take-off rather than catapults, which are one of the most critical technologies for efficient carrier operations since they allow aircraft to extend their range with increased weapons payloads.
On the other hand, the J-15 (a knockoff of a Russian design) appears to be a rather formidable fighter and attack aircraft. Additionally, nuclear-powered carriers are still encumbered by logistics: high-tempo aircraft operations—not to mention the battle group escorts—still require enormous amounts of fuel. The convincing for the argument that the PLA Navy aspires to go beyond a modest flirtation with the aircraft carrier concept is the news that construction of Beijing’s second carrier is now well underway.
For the last five years, the Chinese naval press has produced reams of analysis on carrier operations. One example of this is the detailed reports examining U.S. Navy accidents related to flying off carriers. There is no substitute for experience, of course, but it should be recalled that the U.S. Navy has not employed aircraft carriers in combat against another significant naval force since World War Two.