China’s carrier drills offer pointers to plans for future strike groups
- The Liaoning aircraft carrier conducted high-intensity drills in the Philippine Sea this month as the PLA navy seeks to hone its skills
- Military analysts say the exercise will provide a reference point for training and operations when the country acquires more advanced carriers
The Japanese defence ministry has released details of the exercises in the Philippine Sea and said the carrier’s J-15 fighters had carried out about 200 sorties during the first 10 days of the exercise, which began late last month.
The ministry added that Z-18 anti-submarine and early-warning helicopters were also taking part in the drills. China has not confirmed any details of the drills.
“It’s not clear whether ship-borne aircraft have taken part in night flight drills, but such training is more intense compared with previous drills that were disclosed to the public,” said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at the Taiwanese Naval Academy.
At least seven escort ships are reportedly accompanying the Liaoning – including a Type 055, the country’s most powerful and largest destroyer, three Type 052D destroyers, a supply ship and two other vessels – to form China’s biggest ever strike group formation.
“The ongoing large-scale training operation aims to test and develop training guidelines and a doctrine for ship-borne aircraft carrier deck operations, high-sea logistic support and other details, which will provide a reference point for the navy’s third aircraft carrier, the Type 003,” Lu said.
The third aircraft carrier is expected to launch later this year with a more advanced launch system than the Liaoning and its sister ship the Shandong.
“Except for the catapult take-off systems, all other operations on the new platform of the Type 003 will be very similar to the Liaoning,” Lu said.
The Liaoning carrier group has been operating for more than 20 days – right at the limit for the Soviet-designed ship, analysts said.
After high-frequency training in the first 10 days, aircraft on the Liaoning have reduced take-offs and landings to several sorties a day,” Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said.
“The Liaoning is just a training platform, yet on a real combat-ready carrier, pushing too hard will cause accidents.”
Colin Koh, a research fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the ongoing drills showed the Liaoning’s advances in developing complex carrier strike group tactics.
“This time, it’s not presumptuous to surmise that the Liaoning is further building on these experiences and using them to push the development of carrier strike group operating concepts … and quite clearly pushing the crew (especially the J-15 aircrews) hard on this,” Koh said.
Choosing to drill in an area far from the Chinese mainland will push the People’s Liberation Army to create an autonomous and self-contained carrier strike group capability in the event of conflict, he added.
Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank in Beijing, said the Liaoning and other PLA naval vessels should take advantage of the best naval training period before the typhoon season starts around mid-June.
“The PLA Navy needs to catch up with their American counterparts, because compared with the training intensity of a US carrier strike group, the Liaoning’s ongoing drills are nothing,” he said.