By Kamlesh Kumar Agnihotri
The first Chinese aircraft carrier, refurbished out of the Varyag unfinished Ukrainian carrier, sailed for its 10th sea trial on 28 August 2012. The Chinese official news agency Xinhua, while putting this fact out in the public domain cited its naval experts as surmising that the 304 meter long carrier with a beam (width) of 37 meters and displacing 58,500 tons, will be inducted into the naval service later this year.
No sooner did Chen Bingde, the Chief of General Staff of the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) formally acknowledged in June 2011 that the Varyag was being readied for maiden sailing, than considerable Chinese academic and media discourse erupted. The development was straightaway linked to public pride, national prestige and international ‘must have’ requirements by highlighting the fact that “amongst the five permanent UN Security Council members, only China did not possess aircraft carriers.”
An article in the PLA Daily disparagingly remarked that “some of China’s neighboring countries which were not rich enough had owned aircraft carriers since half a century.” At the same time, one Chinese strategist took the opportunity to point out self-righteously that while the American carriers have become the symbols of US hegemony, China would never seek that course even if it built its own fleet of aircraft carriers. The media editorials and articles commenced animated debates on the carrier’s name and a report has speculated that it will be named as ‘Liaoning’, after the Province of same name.
The strategic community world over has been discussing the development of China’s aircraft carrier program for nearly a decade, with debates and conjunctures about its exact nature, future outlook, effect on regional security and implications in the global domain. The Chinese Ministry of National Defense finally clarified that “the carrier was intended solely for scientific research, experimentation and training” when it commenced its first sea trial in August 2011. The Deputy Commander of PLA Navy was also quoted as having said that the carrier was planned to enter service by the year end.
Capacity and Threat-Estimation
The warship refurbishment goes through three broad phases being able to float, move and fight. A preliminary analysis of the ten sea trials particularly three successive sea trials in May 2012 and the fact that the ninth sea trial that lasted 25 days clearly indicates that the ship has credibly crossed the second milestone of ‘being able to move’. In the meanwhile, the Chinese media speculated that the Sukhoi-30 aircraft would possibly carry out ‘circuits and landing approach’ trials over its angled deck during one of the trials. The procedure involving the aircraft coming in for a ‘low go around’ simulating a landing, would surely have validated many carrier based airmanship aspects involving the men, material and procedures. While the carrier may be ‘floating’ and ‘moving’, the ultimate aim would lie in achieving the most vital milestone of ‘being able to fight’. Therein lies the major challenge in transforming Varyag into a quintessential fighting machine.
The challenges can broadly be classified into two categories, namely, operationalising the carrier as a unit; and enabling its integration into a carrier battle group. The biggest challenge lies in the production and flight test of carrier-borne aircraft. The J-15 aircraft which China has reportedly manufactured out of imitation prototypes of Russian Sukhoi-33 aircraft, has been undergoing flight tests since end 2010, but appears to be constrained on account of reliability of its indigenous engine.
Further, China does not have its pilots trained in launch and recovery from carriers and the prospects of gaining this expertise appear quite remote on account of non-availability of platform, trainers and appropriate international collaboration. Self-learning of this highly specialised skill may involve substantial attrition of precious aircraft and pilots. It is precisely for this reason that the Indian Navy, despite possessing 50 years of carrier operating experience, is proceeding with great caution involving the ship and aviation trials of the newly re-furbished Vikramaditya carrier. The next stage of integrating the carrier into a carrier group will involve the challenges of joint operations with other supporting assets of the PLA, which is no easy task. Beijing possibly recognises this acute limitation when it articulates that this carrier is meant solely for ‘scientific research, experimentation and training’.
The difficult road ahead, however, does not alter the fact that China has made substantial progress in its single-minded pursuit of the vision set out by Admiral Liu Huaqing, PLA Navy commander in 1980s and Vice Chairman of Central Military Commission (CMC) in the 1990s. It perceives no harm in indulging in some rhetoric to fan the strong sense of emerging nationalism associated with a typical rising power. This vigorous public discourse may also be an attempt to create suitable public mood and nationalistic fervor in the run up to the ‘magnum opus’ entry of the aircraft carrier into naval service by the year end, if not on 1 October, the foundation Day of the Peoples’ Republic of China.
Kamlesh Kumar Agnihotri
Research Fellow, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi
email: [email protected]