Exploring Unmanned Drones as an Option for China’s First Carrier

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 7

The ex-Varyag Preparing for Sea Trials

The deputy commander of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN), Xu Hongmeng, stated on March 13 that after four sea trials he “has a plan” to enter the Chinese aircraft carrier, formerly the Soviet-made Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier Varyag, into active service by the end of this year (China Daily, March 13). Simultaneously, China actively has been pursuing the formation and training of a PLAN air wing capable of operating off an aircraft carrier. On the other side of the world, the U.S. Navy landed an F/A-18 Hornet itself on the deck of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower last summer using flight control software designed for the X-47B without any input from the pilot, demonstrating the Navy’s progression toward aircraft carrier-capable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). This begs the following question: what if China is on par with or exceeding current U.S. UAV developments?

These three separate, but possibly converging developments, in the Chinese maritime domain have progressed significantly over the last year: the sea-trials of the ex-Varyag, the operability and formation of PLAN aviation wings and advances of Chinese UAV technologies. Combined, these operational capabilities and technological advancements could create the potential for a potent Chinese drone carrier. It is important to note moving forward that the case for a Chinese drone carrier is strictly speculative. Yet, the convergence of these separate assets, techniques and technologies could lead to a plausible and feasible application of carrier-capable UAVs in the not too distant future.

Carrier Operability

China‘s carrier aspirations have been documented and researched for some time. The functionality of an aircraft carrier is both within and an integral part of Chinese long-term strategic ambitions. In August, these ambitions reached a significant milestone with the successful sea trials of the Chinese aircraft carrier ex-Varyag. It is smaller than American Nimitz but larger than the French Charles De Gaulle. The Kuznetsov-class can support multiple configurations of both fixed-wing and helicopter assets (up to 41 aircraft). Regardless, China’s carrier is toothless without the lethal projection of an air wing.

PLAN Air Wing

Despite recent photographs of J-15s on the deck, some contend that an operable PLAN air wing is still some time off. Some China watchers estimate this could take a few months, while others contend that it will take years. Recently, Daniel Kostecka contended that the “PLAN’s requirements for ship-based aviation are increasing dramatically” (“Problems and Prospects for China’s Ship-Based Aviation Program,” China Brief, January 6). Yet, the Achilles’ heel of sea power for China continues to be its naval aviation component. In retrospect, it took U.S. naval aviation much of the last century to become as proficient as it is today. This was a product of not only technological advancements and innovations, but also of tremendous human losses (pilots, aircrews and seamen). Rather than focus its naval aspirations using the human element, the PLAN may choose to substitute it with a bloodless and cheaper mechanical alternative. Until PLAN air wing capabilities catch up with the carrier, what does China do with an otherwise operational, but empty aircraft carrier? UAV-based carrier or carrier-based drone (CBD) strike experimentation could be a viable and revolutionary option for China to pursue.

UAV Advances and Potential

The biannual Zhuhai Air Show in 2010 highlighted twenty five various Chinese UAV prototypes [1]. If one was to peer into a comparable air show in Russia, India or Iran, would they see so many prototypes? Besides actual proto-types, Chinese military periodicals are full of UAV related articles. Last July, Modern Ships magazine, a ten-page, special section discussed carrier-based UAVs in detail. This included in-depth discussions and schematics concerning the dimensions and the footprint of current U.S. naval prototype UAVs (X-47 A/B and X-45 A/B/C) alongside F-18s and F-35s, possible placement and footprint on a U.S. carrier, ranges of current U.S. UAVs, navigational advances and launch/return capabilities for UAVs [2]. The CVN-78 design also was shown incorporating multiple UAVs on the flight deck. In November’s Modern Weaponry, a full-page profile picture displayed a new and unidentified UAV (prototype?) with a tail hook assembly (Modern Weaponry, November 2011, p. 2). It should be noted that it is entirely plausible that a UAV tail hook assembly does not directly indicate naval utilization. Tail hooks can also be used in short, land-based runway scenarios as well. On January 11, CCTV’s “Military Report” (junshi baodao) program reported on the X-47B’s carrier application and included pictures of it with its wings bent for storage. These publications manifest a growing and progressing Chinese awareness of UAV capabilities and their relevant naval applications.

UAVs also are beginning to fill scientific discussions in Chinese military technical journals. A glance at October’s Fire Control & Command Control reveals two articles’ titles that display Chinese technological prowess with respect to communications and guidance for UAVs: “The Effectiveness Evaluation of C4ISR System Based on RBF Networks” and “Research on UAV Communication System Performance Based on Two Dimension Turbo Coding” (Fire Control and Command Control [FC&CC], October 2011, pp. 11, 28). In December, an article appeared, describing in great detail the complex algorithms required for ”multi-UAV cooperative air combat” scenarios (FC&CC, December 2011, p. 60).

On September 23, an interesting competition took place at the China Aviation Museum in Beijing. The Aviation Industry of China (AVIC), one of China’s leading aeronautical consortiums, in conjunction with UVS International of Paris hosted a three-day “International UAV Innovation Grand Prix.” This event was open to teams from any country with a grand prize of 2,650,000 yuan (approximately $378,000). AVIC specifically was looking for “innovative” and “radical” UAV entries with a mandatory tail-hook. Entries also were to be “a small, conventional/fixed-wing UAV that can automatically take off, cruise and land” on a simulated aircraft carrier deck. It may not be coincidental that the carrier parameters required were basically the parameters for a Kuznetsov-class flight deck. This competition becomes more interesting in light of AVIC’s push into the UAV market and its 18.8 percent growth last year (“Civilian UAV Production as a Window to the PLA’s Unmanned Fleet,” China Brief, February 21).

The combination of size, space and economics of UAVs suggest an extremely tantalizing possibility for naval combat situations. For example, the Northrop Grumman X-47B (Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator or UCAS-D) footprint is at least one third smaller than the F-18E. If the wings are collapsed, the X-47B footprint is further reduced. Not only is the X-47B’s horizontal cross section smaller but also the vertical cross section. If UAV weight reductions match the footprint reductions, it could even be possible to stack helicopter or fixed-wing UAVs in multiple columns in the hangar bay or on the flight deck of the ex-Varyag. This could dramatically increase the overall number of UAVs that could be flown, increasing strike potential. The typical compliment of the Kuznetsov-class carrier is 41 mixed rotary- or fixed-wing assets. Taking into account the savings in size and weight, it could be possible that as many as 60-plus UAVs could be mission capable at any one time. Flying times and range also are significantly greater for UAVs depending on the variation. Cost considerations should be a decisive factor when assessing the viability of the UAV. At the 2011 Aviation Expo in Beijing, Sunward Tech initiated a sale of two helicopter UAVs with a ground control station for less than 10 million yuan (less than $1.6 million) (FlightGlobal, September 23, 2011). An F-18 costs roughly $55 million. The potential costs savings are monumental.

An all-drone carrier would incorporate these advantages. A 2008 report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank that studies military technology, said long-range pilotless aircraft had potential to transform carriers “from a power-projection system with outstanding global mobility but relatively limited tactical reach and persistence into a key component of a global surveillance-strike network” [3]. Moving toward its own UAV carrier goals, the U.S. Navy has made major advances with its trials of the X-47Bs.

Advent of a Drone Carrier?

If Chinese developments are on par or outpace current U.S. UAV developments, it is possible the Chinese could produce a fully-capable CBD air wing well before a PLAN human-piloted air wing is ready. Even if China staged its UAV progression with its human air wing alternative, it would still allow the PLAN multiple options between an all-drone carrier, all-human or mixed drone-human carrier air wing. This author has not found any direct evidence indicating any of these courses of action. The advent of strike-capable CBDs, however, would be a strategically revolutionary event in carrier aviation and PLAN capability. UAV technologies could empower Chinese weapon developers to “leap-frog” over current technologies directly into future ones. If the Chinese will not have a proficient human PLAN air wing for some time, why not explore the possibility of a revolutionary change in carrier aviation?

There are still significant developmental gaps that have to be overcome before the international community witnesses the ex-Varyag steaming over the horizon with a sky full of weapon-laden CBDs. First, the PLA needs to make additional advances in its command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR). Recent pictures of Chinese UAV control consoles reveal a striking similarity between them and video arcade-style gaming kiosks from the 1980s in both size and design with a central screen and joystick. In regards to communications, Chinese capabilities appear to be relatively limited to either SATCOM or direct data linkages (radio) that do not extend beyond the UAVs primary ground station. Because of this limitation, it is relatively uncertain where the UAV’s “joystick” would actually be. Whether the joystick and others would be located in a command center onboard the carrier or at a more remote locale, such as a facility at the Ningbo naval base, is not entirely clear at this time. A second hurdle is that a CBD, its armaments, spare parts and logistics train would need to go into full production—and no such UAV production appears to be underway. Finally, the various pilots, deck crews and support elements of the ex-Varyag need to be created and trained. Many of these problems parallel issues that a manned air wing would require solutions for. Nonetheless, UAV generational development has been measured as a function of single-digit years vice double-digit decades for more traditional weapons programs because the applications, technologies and techniques for UAVs are developing at such a breakneck pace.

Part of a New Strategy?

Strategically, a Chinese drone carrier could offer a new approach to traditional naval warfare. What if the Chinese fundamentally view the aircraft carrier in an entirely different fashion from the more traditional, U.S. model? What if the Chinese were to believe that the carrier is not necessarily the capital ship of the fleet to be protected at all costs, but rather one more asset in a battle space close to China? If the PLAN was neither cost sensitive nor risk adverse, while focusing on quantity over quality, a drone carrier could be a viable asymmetric asset. It is not hard to imagine a “swarm scenario” with dozens or hundreds of CBDs pouncing on multiple targets at once. Non-conventional weapons use and techniques are not a new concept to the PLA and is in line with their military culture. They have invested heavily in other emerging asymmetric weaponry, such as mines, cyber-based electronic warfare and anti-carrier (DF-21D) missiles.

In various scenarios, a PLAN drone carrier offers some interesting possibilities. In the Taiwan Strait, the importance of a PLAN drone carrier would likely be minimal, precisely because of the preponderance of other Chinese naval, air, maritime and artillery assets. Whether for missions in the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, monitoring the Indian Ocean for Somali pirates, or elsewhere abroad, a drone carrier would prove to be a valuable asset. Given China’s political and economic interests in each of those areas, a heavily-armed and -outfitted drone carrier could easily overwhelm most of the neighboring militaries’ capabilities. If the drone carrier was utilized in a non-combatant role, it could provide valuable reconnaissance and support.

In conclusion, none of the evidence so far conclusively points to the utilization of the ex-Varyag as a drone carrier. The convergence of CBD air wing technologies and techniques with an operational carrier however suggests a very plausible naval capability within the near future. If the concept becomes a possible leap-frog technology and platform for the PLAN, observers should expect to see publication drop-offs in UAV manufacture and testing reports, ex-Varyag sea-trial reports, and PLAN air wing informatics very soon. Known as the “bath tub” effect, approaching deployment of a drone carrier would be signaled by a renewed spurt of publications dealing with operational/doctrinal problems rather than more technical concerns. While the ex-Varyag currently deployed by the PLAN is not regarded by the U.S. Navy as a major threat, a conversion of the ex-Varyag to a drone carrier or set of follow-on carriers might very well be.


  1. Richard Fisher, "Maritime Employment of PLA Unmanned Aerial Vehicles," in Andrew Erickson and Lyle Goldstein, eds., Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011, p. 108.
  2. Staff, Xiandai Jianchuan [Modern Ships], July 15, 2011, pp. 12–21. Most of this article was directly translated from Norman Friedman’s Unmanned Combat Air Systems: A New Kind of Carrier Aviation, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010. 
  3. Tom Ehrhard and Robert Work, “Range, Persistence, Stealth and Networking: The Case for a Carrier-Based Unmanned Combat Air System,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, June 18, 2008.