Why China still can’t beat US to become the world’s most powerful navy
After years of copying the best parts of the US naval model in building up its aircraft carrier strike groups, Beijing must now work hard to boost its air crew
China will eventually become the world’s No 2 aircraft carrier power, trailing only the United States, but its carrier strike group air crews are still far below international standard, military experts say.
“An aircraft carrier needs regular large-scale maintenance. China should have more than four carrier groups if it wants to fulfil escort missions on the high seas and safeguard its overseas national interests,” Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said.
“A sole aircraft carrier cannot become a fighting force because it needs the presence of other warships to form a strike group, as well as the protection given by other vessels,” Li said.
The US navy maintains 10 active carrier strike groups based in the US and overseas naval bases. An 11th will come into service when the carrier USS Gerald R. Ford is commissioned. But China just has one active conventional aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, a refurbished former Soviet Kuznetsov-class carrier formerly named Varyag that was unfinished when China acquired it.
On April 26, China launched its second aircraft carrier, the first to be domestically designed and built, which is expected to enter full service in three years.
Li said a formal aircraft carrier strike group needs 4,500 to 5,000 crew members, including carrier-borne fighter pilots, air operation officers, engineers and crew members on other warships.
China’s two carriers will require about 10,000 crew when fully operating.
When naval officers started operating the Liaoning, they faced a big challenge – commanding more than 2,000 crew members from 19 ethnic groups, according to a China Central Television documentary that aired in March.
“We were in a mess when we started to drill the crew – all the passageways became blocked with people when the bell rang,” Chen Yueqi, commander of the Liaoning, told CCTV. Chaos plagued meal time, even though the ship has 10 canteens, he added.
Problems persisted until the ship’s leaders came up with a comprehensive roster plan that divided working and meal times among the sailors.
Compared with their US counterparts, who represent 10 active aircraft carrier strike groups and an organisation with more than 100 years’ experience, Chinese crews are just “kindergarten students”, Li said.
The US navy has set up a comprehensive carrier air operational system, including the high-intensity launch and recovery of aircraft under all weather conditions, keeping a comprehensive crew roster and co-ordinating different warships within a strike group.
To make the Liaoning functional, China has copied many parts of the US air crew operation system, including the rainbow-coloured uniforms designed for flight deck crews and the gesture language of Landing Signal Officers (LSO), Arresting Gear Officers (AGO) and other crew members.
“Cultivating a team of qualified carrier-based fighter pilots, along with LSO, AGO and other crew is much harder than training fighter jet pilots and air operators based on land, because the length of the runway on a carrier deck is just one-tenth of the airstrip on land,” Li said.
“Hardware of aircraft carriers can be quickly constructed through working around the clock once you got the construction technology,” he said. “But training crews takes tremendous experience, which can only be achieved by being accumulated over time.”
The PLA Navy has tested the Liaoning in trial trips since it joined the Navy in September 2012. But the carrier’s first full-scale, “distant sea waters” drill in the Western Pacific took place last Christmas Eve, more than four years after its maiden trial.
The Liaoning was part of a fleet that included 10 warships, a 052D destroyer, two 052C destroyers, two 054 frigates, two Type 094A ballistic missile submarines, one corvette and one supply ship. With the involvement of more than 20 carrier-based and fixed-wing aircraft, the aggregation effectively comprised a full-scale carrier strike group, according to CCTV.
The drill demanded that the carrier-borne pilots take off and land on the shaking deck in the South China Sea, pushing them to land by data provided by flight instruments instead of using a visual reference for landing.
The cloud was very low in the South China Sea, so we couldn’t see where the [Liaoning] carrier was,” Zhang Ye, head of the PLA navy’s carrier-borne force and the pilot of a carrier-based J-15, told CCTV after making the first take-off and landing during the high-seas drill on January 2.
“In this case, we should trust flight instruments and let them guide us to our aircraft carrier.”
Just over a week later, on January 11, the Liaoning carrier strike group sailed north through the Taiwan Strait, heading home after touring 5,800 nautical miles in a three-week voyage, drawing Taiwanese military attention by scrambling fighters.
The CCTV reported the South China Sea training had helped the Liaoning pilots quickly master night flights, the first step in becoming proficient in all-weather operations.
Li Jie said the number of carrier-borne pilots should more than equal the quantity of J-15 fighters. For example, a US aircraft carrier with 80 aircraft has more than 120 pilots on board. But China so far just has 37 carrier-borne pilots in total, which is only enough to serve the 24 J-15 fighter Squadron on the Liaoning.
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said the operating system of the Chinese navy still lags the requirements of an ocean-going combat fleet, because it is in the midst of transitioning from a coastal navy to a blue-water navy.
“The operating system of China’s three naval fleets has been reformed over the decades, and so far its first carrier strike group [training system] is similar to a Japanese maritime self-defence force operation, forming temporary strike groups based on different [drill] missions given by superior military leadership,” Wong said.
“For long-term development and strategic needs, Chinese aircraft carrier battle groups will tend to learn more and more from the US naval model to focus on aircraft carriers,” he said.
Wong said the Chinese navy will establish more fixed and standing battle groups in the future to enable crews to expand their understanding of tactics.
“It’s still a long way to go for Chinese carrier strike group crews to catch up their US counterparts,” he added.