Tag Archives: Liaoning

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.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under China-U.S., Defence

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Defence, Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under China-India, Defence

New Attack Submarines Boost PLA-Navy’s Long-Term Modernisation

chinese-093G-submarine-huludao-shipyard
THREE NEW NUCLEAR
attack submarines are being added to the PLA-Navy, according to state media, taking the country’s sub fleet to about 15 and providing more tangible evidence of the modernisation of China’s military. One report suggests the PLA-N took delivery of the vessels in late-February.

CCTV recently showed a satellite picture of the three subs docked at unidentified berths. This Bystander believes the location to be the Bohai shipyard at Huludao on the Bohai Sea. Our images, acquired from Google Maps, shows one sub in dry dock (above; the black square in the middle of the sub is its vertical missile launching tubes; vertical supersonic missile launching is the vessel’s big advance in capabilities), and two at berth (below). There is little advantage to keeping them hidden. Indeed, China stopped keeping its subs secret in 2009. It is the logistics systems for the latest subs that the rest of the world will want to get a look at.

CCTV said the vessels were Type-093Gs, a longer, faster and quieter (thus less easily detectable) version of the Type-093 nuclear subs of which six are believed to already in service. The PLA-N also has in its sub fleet three old Type-091s and four Jin-class Type-094s, which can carry ballistic missiles.

chinese-submarine-huludao-shipyard

The Type-093Gs are reportedly capable of launching the new YJ-18 supersonic anti-ship missiles. The YJ-18, now in development as a replacement for a mishmash of Soviet-era models, is equivalent in capability for maritime attacks to the Russian (land attack) cruise missile that NATO has nicknamed the ‘Sizzler’. It will be the basis for a series of supersonic and hypersonic (faster than Mach 5) missiles that could be used to attack carrier groups; these missiles fly so fast towards the end that they are difficult for anti-missile systems to intercept.

China is already testing one such hypersonic weapon, the WU-14, which can travel at Mach 10. Were it to come to a hot war between China and, say, the U.S., these missiles would be Beijing’s best bet for knocking out the carrier groups that Washington would likely use to cut China’s maritime supply lines.

The early models in the series will be for attacking ships. The missile can carry a more potent warhead than the PLA-N’s current missiles, and thus be able to penetrate the increasingly heavy armor of U.S. and Japanese warships. Later models are intended for submarine and, eventually, land attacks. The YJ-18 will have a range of 300-400 kilometres from a carrier.

While China’s first carrier, the Liaoning, is operational, it is still far short of being battle ready, mostly because of a lack of pilots trained to operate from carriers. Training more is a priority. And not just for the Liaoning. As many as six carriers are planned, according to senior PLA-N officials quoted recently by the Hong Kong Commercial Daily.

That number has been bruited before. Construction on two improved and indigenously built Liaonings is underway in China Shipbuilding Industry Corp.’s Jiangnan yards in Shanghai with plans for three indigenous nuclear-powered carriers to follow. The newspaper report may be as close to confirmation of those plans as we have had to date.

It will be those latter three carriers that will propel the PLA-N into a blue-water force to be reckoned with. The Liaoning, a refitted ex-Soviet carrier, the Varyag, is, at 58,500-tons, lightweight by carrier standards — half the size of U.S. carriers. It also launches its aircraft with a ‘ski-jump’, not a catapult. That limits the fighters that can operate from it.

The Liaoning carries helicopters and modified Shenyang J-15 fighters, but couldn’t launch the fifth-generation J-31 fighter. It is better described as an aviation-capable patrol ship than a carrier of the line. Letting the PLA-N learn the ropes of carrier operations is its main purpose.

Modern catapult launchers use electromagnetic systems that require massive amounts of energy, of the magnitude a nuclear-powered carrier would be capable of generating. China Shipbuilding Industry was tasked in 2013 with developing nuclear power technology that would be compact and safe enough to install in ships such as carrier and icebreakers, and possibly into nuclear stealth bombers.

Nuclear bombers are probably years off, but a first nuclear-powered carrier is likely within a decade. The two second-generation Liaonings due to be commissioned in 2020 are likely to be conventionally powered. It is a racing certainty that the carrier after those would be nuclear powered.

To put that in perspective, China has had nuclear-powered subs for 40 years, but that is still 15 year fewer than the U.S. In 2022, the U.S. Navy will mark the 60th anniversary of its first nuclear-powered U.S. carrier while the PLA-N may still only be getting its first into the water. What is certain though is that the PLA-N is playing determined catch-up.

5 Comments

Filed under Defence

Drought Hits Northern China, El Niño Threatens Worse

EL NIÑO, THE periodic warming of sea-surface-temperatures in the Pacific, is already if prematurely being blamed for the worst drought to hit northern and central China in 60 years. State media says more than 27.5 million people are facing water shortages across at least six provinces.

Previous El Niños caused flooding in the southern rice-growing regions, as they did so disastrously along the Yangtze River in 1998, even as they brought drought to the wheat-growing provinces of the north. The extreme weather produced by El Niño in 1876–77 caused one of that century’s most deadly famines across Asia, with 13 million people dying from hunger in northern China alone.

While the latest El Nino conditions are only just starting to form in the Pacific, they are exacerbating the hot, dry weather in northern China, which was already suffering from serious water shortages as a result of years of deforestation, industrialization and urbanization.

The previous El Niño in 2009 triggered a sharp fall in wheat output. State media say that drought in Liaoning Province has so far devastated 2 million hectares of crops. An El Niño would ratchet up that number significantly.

Drought is also severe in Jilin, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Henan and Hubei, affecting a further 2 million hectares of crops. The overall effects on harvests could be significant. A break to a run of 11 consecutive years of rising wheat harvests looks likely. The key question is whether this turns out to be a short El Niño lasting a few months, or a more long-standing event lasting as long as a couple of years.

China is not alone in being affected by El Niño. The net effect around the Pacific could be to cut global grain harvests by upwards of 2%. Sugar, beef, cotton, palm oil, cocoa and coffee output could also be hit, pushing up prices of those commodities. China’s cotton fields are south of the Yellow River, and like the rice paddies, subject to El Niño-related flooding.

Leave a comment

Filed under Agriculture, Environment

China’s Dream Carrier

chinese-dream-liaoning-aircraft-carrierThere is a long tradition of sailors on aircraft carriers parading on deck in a formation that spells out messages. This Bystander recalls visiting U.S. carriers even doing it in Japanese characters on visits to Japanese ports. The crew of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, has now joined this naval tradition, as witnessed by this undated photograph that has appeared on some state media web sites. The message is seems fitting — “Chinese Dream”.

2 Comments

Filed under Defence

China’s First Aircraft Carrier To Head For The High Seas

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, will make its first blue-water voyage within a year, state media report. Xinhua did not say where the Liaoning would go or how long the sailing would last, but the trip is likely to include flight-landing exercises on the high seas. Since being formally handed over to the PLA-Navy last year, the refurbished carrier has been undergoing tests and conducting training operations from its home port of Qingdao.

3 Comments

Filed under Defence