Category Archives: Defence

The Liaoning Sails The South China Sea

CHINA’S AIRCRAFT CARRIER, the Liaoning, seems to have gone no further than the South China Sea. There it has been carrying out exercises with its contingent of F-15 fighter jets including combat exercises, aerial refuelling and difficult return landings.

“The Liaoning aircraft carrier group in the South China is carrying out scientific research and training, in accordance with plans,” according to foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. “Complex hydrological and meteorological conditions in the South China Sea as well as a cold front in the area have posed some challenges,” according to the military.

That is not the adventurous sail to the ‘second island chain’ that had been predicted. Speculation now is that the carrier will sail up the Taiwan Strait on its way back to its home port of Qingdao, to complete a symbolic circumnavigation of the island.

Meanwhile, the US Navy says the USS Carl Vinson, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier that was used to bury the body of Osama bin Laden at sea in 2011, will sail from California this week to replace the USS Ronald Reagan which is ending its tour in the Western Pacific.

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Heading For The Deep Blue Yonder

The aircraft carrier Liaoning seen in the East China Sea

THE PLA-NAVY’S aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (above), has sailed for the Western Pacific on what state media say is a routine naval exercise. The trip marks the first time it has ventured into ‘blue water’.

Japan’s defence ministry noted that the carrier and seven other warships had sailed from the East China Sea making passage between Okinawa and Miyako islands on Saturday headed for the Philippines Sea. Taiwan’s counterpart said on Monday that the carrier had entered the South China Sea after passing south of the island, though it counted two fewer vessels than the Japanese (it may not be counting supply ships; a carrier battle group usually comprises eight vessels).

The symbolism of the sailing is that the Liaoning has ‘broken through’ the ‘first island chain’ — the first major archipelagos out from the East Asian littoral, stretching from the Kamchatka peninsula in the north to the Malay peninsula in the south-west and within which China believes the United States wants to keep its force projection penned.

This trip may have been long planned to come just as US President-elect Donald Trump prepared to take over from Barack Obama, but the timing will have added piquancy given Trump’s ratcheting up of tensions in past weeks, including suggestions that his administration might abandon the One China policy.

Last month, Beijing declared the Liaoning ‘combat-ready’ and the warship conducted its first live-fire drills earlier this month in the Bohai Sea. Before heading out to the Pacific, Liaoning was carrying out combat-readiness air drills in the East China Sea including aerial refuelling of its J-15 fighters.

This trip (or the next one) may be intended to get the Liaoning to the ‘second island chain’ (Guam, Mariana Islands and Iwo Jima) to test the carrier group’s long-range mission capabilities, which will be essential to changing the strategic naval balance of power in the Western Pacific (eventually).

The nationalist-minded state newspaper, the Global Times, lays out the long-term course:

The Chinese fleet will cruise to the Eastern Pacific sooner or later. When China’s aircraft carrier fleet appears in offshore areas of the US one day, it will trigger intense thinking about maritime rules.

That is still some day off, but no longer never.

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China Cracks On With Its Second Carrier

China's second aircraft carrier, CV17, seen under construction in dry dock in Dalian, Liaoning province, in mid 2016

THE CONSTRUCTION OF the hull of China’s second aircraft carrier has been completed, state media reports, and the flight deck is now being installed.

Once that is done, probably by the first or second quarter of next year, the vessel will be floated, and its fitting out will start. Sea trials will likely not begin until 2018 or 2019, so the carrier will not be commissioned into active service until the 2020s.

The picture above was taken in Dalian earlier this year, so the flight deck will by now be looking more complete, though there is still work to be done below deck. Our man with the telephoto lens says the island (conning tower) was being installed by late September.

The vessel, known as 17 (US Navy convention would call it CV-17, but the PLA-N uses just a number), is similar in many respects to China’s first carrier, which carried the number 16 before being rechristened as the Liaoning. Whereas the Liaoning was a refit of the Varig, a surplus Soviet-era Admiral Kuznetsov class carrier bought from Ukraine where it was built, 17 is an indigenous version and will carry the designation of a Type 001A class carrier.

It is about the same size as the Liaoning, unsurprisingly as it is being built in the same Dalian dry dock as its predecessor used, but lighter, displacing about 50,000 tonnes. As can be seen in the photograph, it will have a ‘ski ramp’ launch system at the bow.

It also looks to have more space for aircraft than the Liaoning and less for secondary weapons. 17  will still be capable of carrying less than 50 aircraft, including helicopters, but a few more than the Liaoning. As well as the J-15 fighters and helicopters that the Liaoning has, 17 will probably carry an anti-submarine and early warning patrol aircraft.

Chinese military strategists have indicated that China plans a set of three Type 001A carriers — one to be operational, one in port and one in maintenance.

They will very much be the PLA-Navy’s training wheels. Though operational warships, as a carrier battle fleet, they are far short of the blue-water force China has aspirations for its Navy to be. Nineteen, 20 and 21 — Type 002 class carriers — will be much closer to that. This Bystander will be looking for keels to be laid in 2017, probably in Shanghai yards, but they will not be operational on the high seas for at least a decade. Until then, Beijing will have a carrier force whose primary purpose will be to project force in the South China Sea.

That force will be constrained. For one, the J-15s flying from it are a converted rather than a customised marine fighter, and one that has limited strike capacities. Battle-effective carrier fleets need a range of patrol and other aircraft capable of waging electronic warfare. That 17 will likely carry one or two of them is notable.

Furthermore, ski ramp launches restrict a carrier’s fleet to jets. Transporters needed for resupplying carriers far out at sea might be able to land on them, but cannot take off again. Nor can turbo-prop patrol aircraft operate from them.

The next set of carriers will have either the more powerful catapult launch systems standard on US and Russian carriers or may skip a generation and go to electromagnetic systems as are being developed for the US Navy’s most advanced carrier.

That might prove a step too far too fast for China’s naval architects and designers. They have climbed a steep learning curve with refitting the Liaoning (despite the Varig coming, reportedly, with eight lorry-loads of technical documents). Building its successor from scratch will be proving equally challenging, though it has been achieved in double-quick time by carrier-building standards.

In addition, the submarine force has been the navy’s development priority over the carrier fleet, and thus it got the pick of the available design and development talent — the often forgotten constraint on all navies.

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China Revs Up Its Jet Engine Making

JET ENGINES FOR aircraft have long been high on Beijing’s lengthy priority list of technologies to be indigenized. The current Five-Year Plan has aviation engines in the top 10 of 100 state-sponsored projects over the next 15 years intended to increase the country’s technological capability.

China has now formally launched the Aero Engine Corp. of China (AECC) to build them, with a ceremony in Beijing on August 28th. Two former Aviation Industry Corp. of China (AVIC) executives, Cao Jianguo and Li Fangyong, were appointed party secretary and chairman and deputy party secretary and general manager respectively earlier this year.

They will be running a company being created out of more than 40 firms working on some aspect of jet engines. These include three listed companies, AVIC Aviation Engine Corp, Sichuan Chengfa Aero-Science & Technology Co. and AVIC Aero-Engine Controls Co.

AECC will have initial capital of $7.5 billion and start with 96,000 employees. AVIC, which makes military aircraft, and Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (Comac), which makes the C919, China’s biggest domestically-produced passenger plane, are investors in AECC along with the government.

Creating a jet-engine behemoth by merging lots of smaller companies fits the pattern adopted for the rail equipment makers and in some basic industries—consolidating the state-owned sector to create national champions that can be globally competitive.

Galleon, a Shanghai-based aviation consultancy, has estimated that China will invest $300 billion over the next 20 years in aircraft engine development, a sector in which progress to date has been weak.

This is all part of a grand vision for advanced manufacturing, encapsulated in the Made in China 2025 document made public in March, which includes the longstanding ambition to rival the world’s two leading aircraft makers, Europe’s Airbus and the United States’ Boeing. Chinese-built airliners will need Chinese-built engines, not those bought from General Electric, United Technologies’ Pratt & Whitney or Rolls-Royce.

It is not just civil airliners that will need Chinese engines. Increasingly so, too, will China’s domestically built military aircraft, which now use mostly Russian engines or inferior Chinese-designed ones. The PLA-Air Force’s J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters, for example, cannot fly at supersonic speeds like their closest rivals without using after-burners, which makes them detectable by radar.

“The founding of [AECC] is a strategic move that will help enhance national power as well as the capacity of the armed forces”, President Xi Jinping said in a message to this weekend’s ceremony, and called for a speeding up of R&D and manufacturing of aircraft engines “to make China an aviation industry power”.

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Giant Seaplanes Add To China’s Maritime Reach

AG600

THIS BYSTANDER NOTED earlier that a year ago to the month Aviation Industry Corp.’s China Aviation Industry General Aircraft subsidiary had completed the fuselage of a giant modern flying boat. That aircraft (seen above), conceived as the TA-600 Water Dragon but born as the AG600, has now rolled off the production line.

It is bigger than Japan’s Shinmaywa US-2, currently the world’s largest seaplane in service. The AG600 can carry up to 50 passengers and has a range of up to 5,000 kilometres. AVIC once said it could be modified to meet the needs of “maritime surveillance, resource detection, passenger and cargo transport”. State media now say its purpose is to “fight forest fires and perform marine rescue missions”.

We confess to not having counted how many forests there are in the South and East China Seas prone to combustion events, but any that might be blocking the PLA-Navy’s access to the blue waters of the Western Pacific, and even those as far away as Australia’s northern coast, will be within the AG600’s dousing range. Coincidentally, the country’s first indigenous large military transport aircraft, the Y-20, has a similar range.

When not fighting fires, the AG600 could, no doubt, be productively employed hopping between those islands  — or ‘rocks’, by the light of the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration’s recent ruling under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — in the East and South China Seas that Beijing claims as its own.

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Yongxing And Submarine Protection

Yongxing, Sansha prefecture, or Woody Island, in the Paracels archipelago in the South China Sea

CHINA HAS BEEN on Yongxing, known as Woody Island to most of the rest of the world, since Mao’s troops landed on the then unoccupied island in 1956. Woody is part of the Parcels, the closest of the South China Sea archipelagos to the Chinese mainland, and had previously been occupied by French Indochina, Japan and Nationalist China.

As the image above shows, Woody Island today has been extensively built up for a speck of land in the middle of the South China Sea. It has a hospital, library, school and sports fields as well as a military garrison and airport. ICBC and China Telecom both have branches there. The permanent civilian population numbers more than 1,000.

Beijing administers all its claimed land and waters in the region from the Sansha City prefectural government office that was set up on Woody in 2012. The city office is the building with the silvery dome on the right-hand side of the picture.

Vietnam, which calls Woody Island Phi Lam Island, and Taiwan also have territorial claims derived from previous occupants. Reports that the PLA has deployed two HQ-9 surface-to-air missile batteries on the island lend credence to the notion that Beijing is gradually stepping up its militarization of the contested waters of the South China Sea.

Last year, it flew J-11 military jets onto the island, whose airstrip is capable of landing China’s fourth-generation military aircraft. At the same time, it is believed that the newest nuclear submarines that China is building will be based at the PLA-Navy’s Yulin base on Hainan Island only 400 kilometers away and where there are underground pens for some 20 submarines as well as space to dock an aircraft carrier.

Woody could serve as a forward defense base for Yulin should it come to an air attack on the base. Yulin is of increasing strategic important as it offers a quicker route to the deep water passages to the Pacific than the PLA-Navy’s northern Xiaopingdao base. The PLA-N needs that rapid blue-water access if its subs are to be a credible second-strike nuclear deterrent.

The HQ-9 is a medium-to-long-range anti-aircraft missile that can be launched from the back of a heavy-duty military truck on land as well as from a destroyer at sea. An HQ-9 land-based battery would have accompanying power generation and radar trucks, the radar being capable of detecting both low altitude and stealth targets.

The arrays seen in the satellite images taken last weekend that have caused the latest stir are positioned to defend the approaches to Yulin.

The initial reports came from the Taiwanese defense minister, with the commander of the US Pacific Fleet subsequently confirming them to the Reuters news agency, saying it represents “a militarisation of the South China Sea” in ways China’s President Xi Jinping had pledged not to make.

China, for its part, says it has every right to deploy limited defences on its own territory and that that has nothing to do with militarisation of the South China Seas.

HQ-9s, though, are highly mobile weapons systems; they could be taken on or off the island by ferry at any time, or just driven into a storage shed.

Their presence on Woody doesn’t likely have great significance in itself. They are not as provocative there as they would be if rolled out on any of the artificial islands being built in the Spratlys. China vacillates in the South China Sea between asserting its claims and ensuring a belligerent stance does not trip over into live hostilities.

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Light, Fleet And Super: Building China’s Aircraft Carriers

China's first indigenous aircraft carrier under construction in Dalian in Liaoning province

CHINA LAID DOWN its long-term plan to develop an indigenous carrier fleet as long ago as 1987. It took a quarter of a century for the first carrier, the Liaoning, to be commissioned into service, in September 2012.

China’s first carrier was a half-way house in as much as it was a refitted unfinished Soviet vessel, the Varyag. In late December, the defence ministry confirmed the open secret that a second and entirely indigenously designed carrier was being built.

Like the Liaoning, this is being constructed in Dalian, as shown in the satellite image above. Work started in late February or early March, using the same dry dock used to convert the Varyag into the Liaoning.

The new carrier looks to be similar in shape to the Liaoning, though its upper deck may be slightly longer to fit on more planes. It will be conventionally powered, with a ‘ski-jump’ launch for its aircraft. Its displacement has been reported at 50,000-53,000 tonnes, about half the size of the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz and new Ford-class carriers.

Whereas the Liaoning was primarily intended to learn the ropes of building and operating a carrier, the second ship is being built with the intention of operational deployment on ‘combat patrols and humanitarian missions’.

It may start trials as soon as at the end of this year, but it will probably be at least two years after that until it is commissioned. The Liaoning spent more than a year in sea trials and the new carrier will be more complex, particular in terms of its systems, and especially the systems need for carrier groups to operate missions.

These will be domestically developed for the first time, and so need extensive testing. Commissioning the new carrier in December 2018 would be a splashy way to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Mao’s birth.

The new carrier is also likely not the only one that China will add to its fleet. A December 2013 report by New York-based Duowei News sourced to Central Military Commission officials said the PLA-Navy planned to commission two Liaoning-pattern aircraft carriers — known as Type 001s — by 2020.  Wang Min, the Liaoning provincial Party boss, spoke in 2014 of plans for the construction in Dalian of two more carriers.

Assuming the carrier now being built could vacate its dry dock by the end of this year, allowing work on the next carrier to start in early 2017, that deadline might not slip more than a year or so.

That would give China a trio of similar carriers, which fits the pattern across many navies of having carriers in sets of three, one on operational deployment, one in maintenance and one for training. Collectively, they would have 90-100 aircraft and comprise a formidable maritime force in nearby waters such as the East and South China Seas, and beyond towards the Indian Ocean.

India and China are engaged in a competitive race to build their blue-water fleets as they jostle for regional power. All of which makes what is going on at the Jiangnan shipyard on Changxingdao, the island opposite Shanghai at the mouth of the Changjiang river, even more interesting.

Jiangnan Shipyard, Shanghai as seen on Google Earth, January 3, 2016

Seven years ago, Japan’s Asahi newspaper reported that state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corp., the owner of the yard, was building four new docks there (seen in the image above) for the construction of two indigenous mid-sized aircraft carriers – i.e. suggesting something larger than the Liaoning and its sister Type 001s.

One question is, how much larger. The Liaoning and its sister ship(s) fall into the category of light aircraft carriers, at least in terms of capabilities if not necessary displacement. Light aircraft carriers are the Bantamweights of aircraft carriers, as much aviation-capable patrol ships as anything.

The so-called Type 002s to be built in Shanghai could still be in that class, just more offensively capable, with more fighter aircraft and a stronger supporting group comprising destroyers and frigates, logistics and supply ships and possibly submarines.

Or they may be large enough to be considered fleet carriers, albeit still far smaller that U.S., French or Japanese fleet carriers. If China is to have a blue-water navy capable of projecting force far from its shores, it will need fleet carriers — and eventually supercarriers if it is to fulfil its long-term ambition of matching the U.S. Navy.

Another question is, which launching mechanism will be used? A Shenyang J-15 fighter jet cannot take off from the Liaoning’s ski jump both fully armed and with a sufficient fuel load to carry those weapons a useful distance. That could restrict the carriers’ aircraft to air-to-air missions to the exclusion of air-to-ground attacks. That, in turn, could diminish the effectiveness of the advanced Shenyang J-33 fighters being developed for the carriers.

Ski-jump launchers also limit the deck space available for parked aircraft. Ski-jump-launched planes need a longer take-off run than catapult-launched ones.

If China’s carriers are to be deployed operationally as intended such shortcomings will have to be addressed. One or both of the new Type 001s might use a hybrid solution of including so-called ‘waist’ catapult launchers along with a ski jump, as some Russian carriers do.

Or there could be a straight switch to catapult launching, which has been the standard for the U.S. Navy. Either solution would be a significant design change, requiring extended testing time. At best, this Bystander believes, catapult launching would happen for the second of the indigenous carriers.

The Type 002s could skip a generation of launchers and go straight to electromagnetic launch systems (EMALS), of the sort the U.S. Navy is currently testing to replace its catapult launchers. That, though, might be a too courageous leap for the conservative PLA — and aircraft carriers are expensive and high-profile assets on which to experiment. Nor do we have any sense of how far China has got with developing EMALS technology, if at all.

The third question is perhaps the biggest of all. Will the Type 002s be conventionally or nuclear powered? Why that matters is that nuclear-powered carriers would vastly extend the scope and range of PLA-Navy operations.

One straw in the wind that the propulsion system may be the latter is that the Jiangnan yard has a history of building new types of vessels that are firsts for China. Will China’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier be added to its honour roll?

This Bystander thinks that, eventually, it will, but that it will be not the first Type 002 it builds. It could be the second, although we lean slightly towards that being conventionally powered, too, and the transition to nuclear carriers and supercarriers starting after that.

The PLA-Navy already has a dozen nuclear-powered submarines; in fact, it decommissioned its first nuclear submarine in 2013, after three decades of service. That same year, China Shipbuilding Industry Corp. started state-funded research on core technologies and safety considerations for future nuclear-powered surface vessels.

Ships that need to be at sea for long periods without refuelings, such as polar vessels and aircraft carriers, are likely candidates. However, unlike building hulls of aircraft-carrier size and strength, scaling up nuclear propulsion from a submarine to an aircraft carrier is not a trivial task.

Going from starting research to commissioning something as large, complicated and expensive as an aircraft carrier within a decade strikes us as far too tight a deadline to hit. But nuclear-powered Chinese supercarriers on the high seas in 10-15 years from now seems eminently likely.

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