An Aircraft Carrier With A Twist

27 Nov

China Daily Mail‘s chankaiyee2 offers a CCTV video about China’s inaugural testing of its training-only aircraft carrier, Liaoning. (And, no I don’t understand the commentary.) Five pilots, probably all future military leaders in the PLA, have now lost their carrier cherries.

Though quite a few analysts believed that it had to take a long time before China had carrier-based aircrafts and trained pilots to operate the aircrafts, I was not surprised that the J-15 fighters China specially developed for its carrier could be ready so soon and that China was able to train pilots so quickly.

In my post The Mystery of China’s Homegrown Aircraft Carriers, I said, “according to the annual report of the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), China’s State Council made a decision in 2003 that China should become a maritime superpower.

“That was confirmed by China’s Ocean Development Report, which said in 2010 that China had the idea and made a plan for building aircraft carriers in order to become a maritime superpower.”

Since China began to refit the hulk of the Liaoning, it has been doing lots of research and development to supply everything needed by the carrier and training pilots for it.

But the next step is probably four to five years away – actual military operations. Two questions, from my uneducated perspective. China plans to construct flat-decked carriers with advanced catapult systems. How does Liaoning’s cantilevered design help it to train pilots? And, similarly, that’s a bit of a rightward spin on the take-off, isn’t it? Secondly, it doesn’t look as if Liaoning can accommodate that many aircraft. Training squadrons is going to take time.

Safely recovering a plane onto a carrier is the big deal, of course. Launching a plane is the easy part. To launch, the plane is locked onto the steam catapult, the air pressure is built up correctly in the steam catapult, the pilot revs up the plane’s engines, and after that it is basically a matter of letting physics do the rest. Landing back on the carrier, however, is the hard part. There is the lining up of the plane’s approach path, coming in at not too high an angle or not too low of one; then coming in not too fast, not too slow, hooking properly onto the retarding line – and pretty much all of this at the same time. The only standard flight activity, short of wartime landings under fire, that is harder than landing on a carrier is doing so at night.

From now on, however, the Chinese will begin with serious drills with their new toys – accent on the plural – in which everything must work and play well together. A carrier, after all, is of little use if it only has one plane making use of its capabilities. Accordingly, the key is to manage it so that whole squadrons of fighter jets and their pilots as well as the deck crews must be able to do the task, and all with split-second timing. Nevertheless, Xinhua went on to explain that their shiny new carrier had been undergoing “sailing and technological tests” since the end of September and had already carried out more than 100 training and testing exercises before the launch and recovery exercise just announced.

The Liaoning’s profile shows off a distinctive cantilevered deck designed to improve take-off capabilities. It was reconstructed out of the near derelict, unfinished Soviet carrier, the Varyag, which was still under construction as the Soviet Union collapsed. The Chinese actually purchased the Varyag from the Ukraine after that nation had inherited the ship from the old Soviet navy, but was never able to make real use of it. When China first purchased the ship, the rumours about its ultimate purpose included the idea it would become a floating casino and hotel, or maybe a fancy apartment building moored at the quayside of one of China’s big ports – or, less likely, perhaps even an aircraft carrier. At the time, that latter choice seemed something of a stretch for many.

Analysts say the carrier will not actually be combat-ready for some time yet. Moreover, experts also argue Chinese combined aviation/ship tactics and the major budget needed to support such ambitions will continue to lag far behind US commitments on that score. The US is still the main military power in the western reaches of the Pacific Ocean.

Still, very impressive

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