Problems and Prospects for China’s Ship-Based Aviation Program

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 1

The J-15, China's Developmental Carrier-Based Fighter

Probably the most cited example of China’s desire to expand its naval power beyond Chinese coastal waters is Beijing’s pursuit of aircraft carriers capable of operating conventional fixed-wing fighter aircraft. Chinese interest in acquiring aircraft carriers spans decades but financial, technological, political and strategic constraints have prevented serious pursuit of this capability. In April 2005, the unfinished Soviet Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier Varyag, that China purchased from Ukraine in 1998, went into dry dock at Dalian Shipyard in northern China for an extensive refitting. For the past several years, anyone with access to the Internet has been able track the extensive modifications to the old ship by viewing photographs posted on a number of blogs and websites. In August 2011, the ship finally left port under its own power to begin what will likely be an extensive series of sea trials. In addition to work on the ex-Varyag, Chinese officials are willing to discuss China’s interest in aircraft carriers with increasing candor (Tzu Ching, April 1, 2006). This includes positive statements in April 2009 regarding aircraft carriers by China’s Defense Minister Liang Guanglie and the commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Admiral Wu Shengli, as well as a March 2010 editorial in the English language version of the Global Times stating that it is time for the world to prepare for China’s aircraft carrier (Global Times, March 11, 2010; Zhongguo Tongxun She, April 22, 2009). Just as important as the ship are the aircraft the PLAN will operate off of the ship. This article will examine current developments in Chinese ship-based aviation as well as shortfalls in PLAN ship based weapon systems and training.

Fixed-Wing Developments

While the PLAN continues to refit and modernize the new carrier, the composition of the ship’s air group also is taking shape. The PLAN’s carrier fighter, the developmental J-15 is a domestically-produced, carrier-capable variant of the Russian-designed Su-27 Flanker. The Russian Navy employs such a fighter, the Su-33D Flanker, off its lone carrier, the Kuznetsov, and the PLAN operates one regiment of the land-based Su-30MK2 strike fighters and one regiment of land-based Chinese built J-11B Flanker fighter aircraft. In October 2006, Russian press reported on negotiations between China and Russia for the purchase of between 12 and 50 Su-33D Flanker fighters for the PLAN (Kommersant, October 23, 2006). In March 2009, however, Russian press reported negotiations stalled indefinitely due to disagreements over the total number of aircraft Russia would produce for China. Specifically, Moscow was concerned China was willing to only guarantee the purchase of between 2 and 14 Su-33s because China intended to reverse engineer the fighters (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, March 10, 2009). Russian concerns are fueled by China’s domestic production of its own unlicensed land-based Flanker variant, the J-11B. With negotiations for the purchase of Su-33s terminated, China is using its experience producing the land-based J-11B to produce its own carrier-capable Flanker. China is producing such a fighter, designated the J-15, with one Internet site claiming the first prototype of this aircraft made its maiden flight on August 31, 2009 and its first takeoff from a land-based ski-jump at a test facility taking place on May 6, 2010 (Kanwa Asian Defense, May 1, 2010; Chinese Military Aviation, July 7, 2010). While these reports cannot be confirmed, recent pictures show prototypes of the J-15 in flight, including at least one that is painted in the light gray paint scheme favored by the PLAN for its fighter aircraft (Chinese Military Aviation, July 7, 2010). Additionally, video of a J-15 prototype in flight is now available on YouTube [1].  While the J-15 appears to be a near copy of the Su-33, it is reasonable to assume that internally it will likely possess the same radar, avionics suite, and weapons capabilities as the J-11B.

Rotary-Wing Developments

In addition to fighter aircraft, the PLAN needs to acquire support aircraft for its carriers, most notably, helicopters. PLAN carriers probably will employ a mix of helicopters for anti-submarine warfare (ASW), search and rescue (SAR), airborne early warning (AEW) and general utility duties. However, at this time rotary-wing aviation is a significant weakness for the PLAN. The PLAN’s current fleet of helicopters is inadequate to support its current force structure and it is in ship-based rotary-wing aviation that the PLAN suffers from one of its most significant near-term deficiencies. Currently, the PLAN operates about 35 frigates and destroyers equipped with landing pads and hangars. Other ships equipped with helicopter facilities include the aviation training ship Shichang, two Type-071 LPDs, the Type-920 hospital ship and the PLAN’s three most modern at sea replenishment ships. At this time, the PLAN’s inventory of helicopters is approximately 35 to 40 aircraft. Only about 20 to 25—the domestically produced Z-9s and Russian made Ka-28s, which serve as ASW and SAR helicopters—are capable of operating from destroyers and frigates though there is deck and hangar space for 30 to 35 helicopters in the fleet. Additionally, there are approximately 15 medium-sized Z-8s capable of operating off of larger ships such as the Type-071 LPD and the Type-920 hospital ship.

This situation will only get worse as the PLAN adds more helicopter-capable surface ships to the fleet. In addition to the Type-071 LPD, press reports claim China plans to develop the Type-081 LHD helicopter assault ship, similar in size and capability to the French Mistral-class LHD—or approximately half the size of a U.S. Navy Wasp-class LHD. The PLAN’s most modern frigates and destroyers such as the Jiangkai-II FFG and the Luyang-II DDG are equipped with helicopter facilities and they are replacing older ships that cannot operate rotary-wing aircraft. With an insufficient number of helicopters for its current force structure, the PLAN needs to add a significant number of rotary-wing aircraft order to support its destroyers and frigates, and its future fleet of aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships. This will likely be accomplished in the near term through the purchase of additional Ka-28s from Russia and the production of additional Z-9s and Z-8s (Vremya Novostey,February 8, 2010). These solutions however are not optimal. China prefers domestic weapon systems to foreign purchases and the Z-9 is limited in capability due to its small size, and the Z-8 suffers from engine problems. A potential future solution is a militarized variant of the Z-15, China’s co-produced variant of the Eurocopter EC-175. The commercial variant of this platform however is not expected to begin production until 2012; thus, any specialized military variants probably will not see production for at least several years (People’s Net, December 17, 2009; China Defense Today, March 15, 2008). Additionally, beyond the acquisition of new platforms, organizing, training and equipping an expanded rotary-wing force will take a significant amount of time and effort.

In addition to helicopters for ASW and SAR, given that China’s first carrier, the Varyag. is equipped with a ski-jump launch mechanism and the strong possibility that at least its first domestically produced carrier will be likewise equipped, the PLAN needs to develop and procure a rotary-wing based airborne AEW platform. This is because heavier fixed-wing AEW platforms such as the U.S. Navy’s E-2C Hawkeye are unable to launch from aircraft carriers without the assistance of steam catapults. Other navies that operate ski-jump equipped carriers such as the Royal Navy, the Indian Navy, and the Russian Navy all operate rotary-wing AEW platforms in lieu of a much more capable fixed-wing aircraft. According to Russian press and internet reporting, China is taking delivery of up to nine Ka-31 AEW helicopters while internet photographs indicate that China has fielded a prototype of an AEW-variant of the Z-8 medium-lift helicopter (Vremya Novostey, February 8, 2010; Chinese Military Aviation, November 11, 2009) [2].  At this time it is unknown which one will be chosen as the primary AEW helicopter for the PLAN’s aircraft carrier force. It is possible the PLAN sees an indigenous platform based on the Z-8 as a long-term solution while Ka-31s imported from Russia will serve as gap fillers. Alternatively, the Z-8 prototype also could be a test bed for an AEW variant of a more modern helicopter, such as the developmental Z-15.11 Any of these would be much less capable than a fixed-wing AEW platform, such as the America E-2C Hawkeye.
 
Pilot Training

One final element of China’s aircraft program is pilot training. Little is known about this crucial aspect of the program, causing a great deal of myth and conjecture to form around this issue. One of the most significant myths related to PLAN aircraft carrier pilot training revolves around an alleged carrier pilot training program at the Dalian Naval Academy. The September 5, 2008 issue of PLA Daily printed an article entitled “Dalian Naval Academy Recruits Pilot Cadets for the First Time” that discussed the recruitment of 50 pilot cadets, selected to receive a four year education in ship-based aircraft flight. Since then, it has been assumed in a variety of publications that this article was discussing the recruitment and training of the PLAN’s first class of carrier aviators.

While the story is compelling, it is highly unlikely the article refers to the education and training of PLAN pilots for fixed-wing aircraft operations for several reasons. First, Chinese press articles routinely refer to helicopters operating from PLAN warships as shipboard or ship-borne aircraft thus it should not be assumed the article is necessarily referring to training for fixed-wing carrier aviators. Second, the Dalian Naval Academy does not have a pilot training program. PLAN pilot candidates attend either the PLAN’s Aviation Engineering College in Yantai for two years or the PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF) Aeronautics University in Jilin for two years, followed by an additional two years at either the PLAN’s Flight Academy in Huludao or a PLAAF Flight Academy, respectively [3]. The Dalian Naval Academy trains surface warfare officers, naval political officers, and maritime engineers. While it is possible the PLAN could expand pilot education and training to the Dalian Academy, there is no evidence to suggest this has occurred. Third, it is highly unlikely the PLAN’s initial cadre of carrier pilots will be comprised of “nuggets” fresh out the Flight Academy. Instead, the PLAN will probably draw its first generation, and possibly successive generations of carrier aviators, from the ranks of experienced aviators in its active duty fighter force.

Although the Dalian Naval Academy is not known to have a pilot training program, it does have a program designed to train officers as controllers and managers for shipboard helicopter operations. In March 2002, People’s Navy reported on the launch of an 18-month program at the Dalian Naval Academy to train officers as aviation branch chiefs to serve on board surface combatants. This program marked a significant step for the PLAN in the management of shipboard helicopter operations because aviation branch chief duties had previously been an additional duty for officers who often possessed little or no knowledge of aviation. The subsequent graduation of the first class of officers from this program was reported in July 2003 in the PLA Daily. Based on these facts, it is likely the September 5, 2008 PLA Daily article refers to an expansion of the program begun in 2002 due to recognition on the part of the PLAN that it needs enhanced training for officers assigned to manage rotary-wing flight operations. This is reinforced by the English language website for PLA Daily which lists “Shipboard Helicopter Command” as one of the bachelor degree programs offered at the Dalian Naval Academy. While the possibility of this program expanding in the future to include training officers in the management and control of fixed-wing operations from aircraft carriers is not known at this time, it is reasonable to assume such an expansion will occur in the coming years.

Conclusion

As the PLAN continues to modernize with new ships capable of operating aircraft at sea including aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, and major surface combatants, the PLAN’s requirements for ship based aviation are increasing dramatically. The most visible aspect of the PLAN’s developing ship based aviation capability is the J-15 carrier fighter now in testing. Beyond that “big ticket” program, however, the PLAN has significant shortfalls in less visible but equally important areas such as ship-based rotary-wing aviation and training. The successes and setbacks of the J-15 and its integration with the ex-Varyag will no doubt receive a great deal of attention from China watchers and will likely be the subject of massive amounts of speculation as the ex-Varyag continues its sea trials. It is other less exciting areas of naval aviation that ultimately determine the effectiveness of PLAN ship-based aviation. The PLAN’s future success or failure in developing a training pipeline, not just for its pilots but for those tasked with managing shipboard flight operations will go a long way in determining whether or not carrier aviation becomes an institutionalized component of the PLAN or a boutique capability relegated to a few elite pilots. Further, the PLAN’s ability to organize, train and equip a larger and more capable ship-based helicopter force for its increasing number of helicopter capable warships, represents a critical element of its modernization that must be addressed if the PLAN desires to be a truly modern navy that is capable in all major elements of naval warfare. Sea based aviation is complex and dynamic and how the PLAN manages all of its diverse components will ultimately determine its success or failure in this area.

Notes:

  1. “J-15 Next-Generation Carrier-based Fighter Caught on Camera,” YouTube, July 8, 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trYUWQvKees
  2. “Z-8 AEW Helicopter Unveiled,” China Defense Blog, October 19, 2009, http://china-defense.blogspot.com/2009/10/z-8-aew-helicopter-unveiled.html.
  3. See China’s Navy 2007, Office of Naval Intelligence. This document can be found at www.fas.org/irp/agency/oni/chinanavy2007.pdf.