The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

China’s Domestic Aircraft Carrier Program: Modernization and Challenges

Wild Blue Yonder --

Indigenously produced aircraft carriers are an important component of Chinese military modernization efforts, and China clearly values the capability an aircraft carrier brings to its national security and military strategies. In September 2012, China commissioned the Liaoning, an ex-Soviet ship acquired from Ukraine named the Varyag, and eagerly began the complex learning process of conducting flight operations at sea.1 After the first successful launches and recoveries of a J-15 fighter from the deck of the Liaoning in November 2012, China officially became, “only the fifth country in the world to have conventional takeoff and landing fighters aboard an aircraft carrier.”2 Jiang Zemin, Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party from 1989 to 2002, formally set China on the path to building aircraft carriers when he directed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to “place the construction of the Naval Air Force in an important strategic position.”3 China then commissioned the domestically produced Shandong in 2019, modeled after the Liaoning, after completing initial sea trials in 2017–18.4 Construction of a third, and likely more advanced, aircraft carrier—the Type 002—is presently underway at the Jiangnan Shipyard with an unknown estimated date of completion.5 Analysis of China’s domestic aircraft carrier program, the status of integrated carrier flight operations, and the employment plans for the Liaoning and Shandong can aid understanding of an increasingly complex aspect of Chinese military strength. To that end, the domestic aircraft carrier program is consistent with the Chinese national defense strategy, will help the PLA overcome regional geographic limitations, assert maritime claims, and, despite some obvious near-term challenges, will become a true peer threat to US Navy aircraft carrier dominance in the Pacific.

Though mentioned explicitly only twice in China’s 2019 national defense White Paper, aircraft carriers are a critical capability identified in China’s National Defense in the New Era. In their own words, China acknowledges that their “military security is confronted by risks from technology surprise and growing technological generation gap.”6 To effectively respond to perceived security threats, “China’s armed forces take solid steps to strengthen military preparedness and comprehensively enhance combat capabilities for the new era.”7 In its annual report to Congress, the Department of Defense also recognizes the increased emphasis China places on military modernization as they hope to complete a basic modernization effort by 2035 and to become a “world class” military by 2050.8 And although China does not define what is meant by “world class,” “it is likely that China will aim to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to—or in some cases superior to—the US military.”9 Chinese strategists understand the critical role a modern navy plays in achieving national objectives and places the PLAN in high standing moving forward.10 Some scholars even view the PLAN as taking a more hawkish approach to national security compared to other more traditional defense-minded military officers. Andrew Scobell remarks the PLAN “seems to have a particularly strong sense of mission and appears to be a driving force behind Chinese exploration of and expansion into the South China Sea.”11 A modern navy equipped with aircraft carriers gives China a power projection capability previously unavailable to them and consistent with their views of military modernization.

China recognizes the US is attempting to maintain an absolute military technology advantage, and aircraft carriers will help them close the capability gap with the US. Many observers believe aircraft carriers will allow China to “demonstrate China’s status as a leading regional power and major world power,” as well as “power-projection operations, particularly in scenarios that do not involve opposing U.S. forces, and to impress or intimidate foreign observers.”12 Politically, US aircraft carriers have historically played a significant role in coercive diplomacy, a fact not lost on China, who, “drawing lessons from history,” seeks to “strengthen its national defense and military to provide security guarantee for its peaceful development.”13 China will use aircraft carriers to enhance several discrete national security objectives.

First and foremost, aircraft carriers will help China overcome the limits of their own geography through Near Seas Defense and Far Seas Protection. Near Seas Defense, the PLAN’s regional maritime strategy, is largely driven by Chinese concern over “countries from outside the region conduct frequent close-in reconnaissance on China by air and sea, and illegally enter China’s territorial waters and the waters and airspace near China’s islands and reefs, undermining China’s national security.”14 Although China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities are significantly more robust inside of the First Island Chain, naval aviation will only aid this effort and “strengthen its capabilities to reach farther into the Pacific Ocean” for Far Seas Defense.15 Those defensive requirements are helping China improve “its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime maneuver operations, maritime joint operations, comprehensive defense, and integrated support, so as to build a strong and modernized naval force.”16 China has deployed the Liaoning carrier task group into the Far Seas environment for training, live force-on-force exercises, and readiness evaluations to support this effort but also because “the more aircraft carriers available to participate in a conflict, the more air power [they] will be able to bring to bear” in future conflict.17

Next, aircraft carriers will help China assert their demands for national reunification with Taiwan, dispute maritime claims in the South and East China Seas, and protect other vital sea lines of communication in the Pacific region. Former commander of the South Sea Fleet, Admiral Jiang Weilie, said, “the more than 3 million square kilometers of maritime territory is important for the realization of China's sustainable development, for the grand revival of the Chinese nation, and for the China dream.”18 While this is consistent with recent claims that China is committed to “building an amicable relationship and partnership with its neighbors, and peaceful resolution of disputes over territory and maritime demarcation through negotiation and consultation,”19 some analysts believe “China's expanding naval capabilities and rising nationalism [has] provided new opportunities for bureaucratic interests to shape a more forceful Chinese foreign policy.”20

On its first training deployment, the Liaoning cruised through the Taiwan Strait to “send a stern warning to the “Taiwan independence separatist forces,”21 similar to how US aircraft carriers have previously sought to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan. China views most islands in the South China Sea and the Diayou/Senkaku Islands as “inalienable parts of the Chinese territory” and claim to be “committed to resolving related disputes through negotiations with those states directly involved on the basis of respecting historical facts and international law.”22 They may, however, employ an aircraft carrier to coerce other parties to the disputed claims should a legal approach fail. The Liaoning, with over 25 embarked J-15 fighters, is permanently stationed at Qingdao and Shandong will likely be permanently stationed at Yulin Naval Base in the Southern Theater Command; easy striking distance to force a military resolution over claims in the South China Sea.23 The PLAN also seeks to challenge the US monopoly of providing security for strategic sea lines of communication in the region. Several PLAN vessels, including the Liaoning, transited the Miyako Strait in the First Island Chain during the summer of 2019 enroute to what China claimed was a routine training exercise.24 In China’s view, their aircraft carrier program will only enhance their effort to defend disputed strategic maritime territory in the Pacific.

Despite the many benefits aircraft carriers bring to Chinese national security strategy, many operational and tactical challenges will limit their effectiveness in the near term. First among those challenges is the difficulty of blue water operations and organic aerial refueling. China cannot yet conduct carrier flight operations beyond the range of an emergency divert land-based airfield even though they desire to “extend air defense coverage beyond the range of coastal and shipboard missile systems [to] enable task group operations at increasingly longer ranges.”25 A robust and reliable air-to-air refueling capability is required to safely recover fighters aboard an aircraft carrier while far out to sea. Land-based tankers are insufficient if the aircraft carrier operates beyond the maximum tanker range. According to Roger Cliff, modernization and production of refueling tankers has not advanced commensurate with fighters and bombers.26 Similar to land-based operations, carrier-based fighters will almost certainly not fly farther than their unrefueled combat radius without a dedicated organic tanker. PLAN J-15’s aboard the Liaoning are reportedly able to conduct “buddy store” tanking, where one aircraft offloads fuel to another.27 This method, however, severely limits the offload capacity due to the lack of external fuel tanks on the J-15, and each fighter designated for tanking duty is then unavailable for traditional combat roles.28 The US Navy previously addressed this challenge with a dedicated platform for organic tanking in the S-3B Viking and is also pursuing the development of an unmanned refueling platform in the MQ-25 Stingray.29 Until that capability matures, the US will rely on “buddy store” tanking from F/A-18 Super Hornets, but the overall impact to combat effectiveness is less due to the greater sortie generation capability on Nimitz and Ford class aircraft carriers compared to the Liaoning.

China is also training diligently to overcome the challenges of at-sea sustainment and logistics for their domestic aircraft carriers. China recognizes this challenge and is “building a joint, lean, and efficient logistic support system with the strategic and campaign level forces as the main force, the affiliated forces as the support, and the civil sectors as supplements.”30 The PLA Joint Logistics Support Force is the lead service for ensuring “logistics units have been incorporated into TC-level joint training, trans-theater training by services and arms, and joint exercises and training with foreign militaries to strengthen the integrated training of logistical and operational forces.”31 Acquisition and fielding of aircraft carriers strongly implies that China desires to keep them at sea for extended periods of time. Their ability to do so “will likely increase through the acquisition of additional underway replenishment ships and regularized access to foreign ports,” but Roger Cliff argues, “this expansion of naval supply capabilities will still not be enough for the PLA to be able to sustain large scale naval operations outside of East Asia for a protracted period.”32 Two new Fuyu class fast combat support ships were built to specifically support aircraft carrier operations.33 The new logistics and replenishment ships were recently used in a major fleet exercise in the western Pacific, but aircraft carriers did not participate.34 China military analyst Roderick Lee argues that the use of these new Fuyu ships is a “training evolution [which] builds basic proficiencies for replenishment ships to transfer aircraft ordnance to aircraft carriers in future training events.”35 China is rapidly learning how to sustain the Liaoning at sea to better enable future combat operations.

China currently has an effective power projection precision strike capability through land-attack cruise missiles on its surface and subsurface combatants.36 Aircraft carriers will enhance this capability with naval aviation assets, and the PLAN is continuously developing and incorporating new technologies on follow-on platforms to the Liaoning and Shandong. China’s new Type 002 aircraft carrier design will “enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations and thus extend the reach and effectiveness of its carrier based strike aircraft.”37 The Defense Department projects this carrier will be operational by 2024, with more carriers likely to follow, and will ultimately feature a majority of 4th generation fighters—likely the J-31.38 The Type 002 will feature electro-magnetic launch catapults, as opposed to the ski-jump style launch method on the Liaoning, greatly improving the range and payload capability of embarked aircraft.39 Many analysts also expect future aircraft carriers will feature special mission aircraft responsible for early warning, electronic warfare, and anti-submarine warfare.40 The Defense Department warns, “these improvements would increase the striking power of a potential carrier battle group when deployed to areas beyond China’s immediate periphery.”41 While not yet able to match the capability of US aircraft carriers, PLAN advancements in modern capabilities on new warships such as, “sensors, weapons, C4ISR systems, networking capabilities, stealth features, damage-control features, cruising range, maximum speed, and reliability and maintainability,” will have implications for US maritime aims in the Pacific. 42

China is not seeking absolute parity with US aircraft capability. Rather, they will likely employ their military “in a manner that best suits the needs of China’s armed forces to defend and advance the country’s interests.”43 While not yet a true peer threat in aircraft carrier operations, China will use all available assets to intercept US ships and aircraft from entering Chinese waters inside the First Island Chain. In PLA publications, “finding and destroying the enemy's main sea and air forces' is the first action listed in the description of offensive campaigns against coral islands and reefs in Campaign Studies.”44 In a hypothetical combat scenario between US and Chinese aircraft carriers, most analysts believe the US retains a decisive tactical advantage. The advantage for China, however, is in knowing that “such attacks could divert U.S. ships and aircraft from performing other missions in a conflict situation with China.”45 For the first time since World War II, the possibility exists for fleet engagements featuring aircraft carriers in the Pacific theater, and the PLAN “is developing the proficiencies to sustain limited offensive strikes against U.S. forces—perhaps as far out as Hawaii.”46 The US Navy must prepare for the likely challenges associated with a PLAN conducting offensive operations outside the First or even Second Island Chains.

Aircraft carriers like the Liaoning and Shandong will remain an important component of Chinese national security for the foreseeable future. The procurement of these vessels, and the future development of the Type 002 and others, is consistent with China’s public statements on national defense. Aircraft carriers are symbols of a modern, technologically advanced navy that will help China overcome the limits of its own geographic position and assert its right to disputed maritime claims in the region. The PLAN faces many challenges in the development of naval aviation such as blue-water operations away from other support, logistics sustainment at sea, and power projection strike capability, but they are working tirelessly to overcome these obstacles and to directly challenge US aircraft carrier dominance in the Pacific region.

Commander Jake Wilson, United States Navy
Commander Jacob E. Wilson is a Naval Intelligence Officer assigned to USS GERALD R. FORD (CVN-78). He recently served at U.S. Central Command Joint Intelligence Center as the Senior Analyst for Iran’s military and Deputy Chief of the Iran Analysis Center. Other previous assignments include USS IWO JIMA (LHD-7) and the Hopper Information Services Center at Office of Naval Intelligence. CDR Wilson is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy (2002), College of Naval Command & Staff (2017), and Air War College (2021). He previously served as a Naval Flight Officer in the S-3B Viking community.

Notes


1 Defense Intelligence Agency, China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win (Washington, D.C.: Military Power Publications, 2019), 75.
2 China Military Power, 75.
3 John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, Imagined Enemies: China Prepares for Uncertain War (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2006), 240.
4 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 2020), 47.
5 Center for Strategic and International Studies, Tracking China’s Third Aircraft Carrier (Washington, D.C.: CSIS China Power Project, 2020), https://chinapower.csis.org/.
6 The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, China’s National Defense in the New Era (Beijing, China: Foreign Languages Press Co. Ltd., 2019), 6.
7 China’s National Defense in the New Era, 9.
8 Annual Report to Congress, 24.
9 Annual Report to Congress, 24.
10 China’s National Defense in the New Era, 21.
11 Andrew Scobell, China's Use of Military Force: Beyond the Great Wall and the Long March (United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press, 2003), 197.
12 Congressional Research Service, China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2020), 16.
13 China’s National Defense in the New Era, 6.
14 China’s National Defense in the New Era, 5.
15 Annual Report to Congress, ix.
16 China’s National Defense in the New Era, 21.
17 Roger Cliff, China's Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 247.
18 Robert S. Ross and Jo Inge Bekkevold, China in the Era of Xi Jinping: Domestic and Foreign Policy Challenges (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2016), 251.
19 China’s National Defense in the New Era, 35.
20 China in the Era of Xi Jinping, 250.
21 China’s National Defense in the New Era, 11.
22 China’s National Defense in the New Era, 7.
23 Annual Report to Congress, 99.
24 Annual Report to Congress, 79.
25 Annual Report to Congress, 78.
26 China's Military Power, 160.
27 Kenneth Allen and Lyle J. Morris, PLA Naval Aviation Training and Operations (Montgomery, AL: China Aerospace Studies Institute, 2016), 36.
28 PLA Naval Aviation Training and Operations, 36.
29 David B. Larter, The US Navy’s new autonomous refueling drone takes historic first flight (Defense News, September 19, 2019), https://www.defensenews.com/.
30 China’s National Defense in the New Era, 23.
31 China’s National Defense in the New Era, 23.
32 China's Military Power, 160.
33 Annual Report to Congress, 78.
34 Roderick Lee, The PLA Navy’s ZHANLAN Training Series: Supporting Offensive Strike on the High Seas, (The Jamestown Foundation, China Brief, April 13, 2020), https://jamestown.org/.
35 The PLA Navy’s ZHANLAN Training Series.
36 Annual Report to Congress, 44.
37 Annual Report to Congress, 47.
38 Annual Report to Congress, 47.
39 Congressional Research Service, China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2020), 14.
40 Annual Report to Congress, 78.
41 Annual Report to Congress, 78.
42 China Naval Modernization, 42.
43 China Naval Modernization, 31.
44 China's Military Power, 233.
45 China Naval Modernization, 16.
46 The PLA Navy’s ZHANLAN Training Series.
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