Aircraft carrier Liaoning and its implications for future Chinese power projection
By now, military analysts and pundits of all stripes and prejudices have become relatively familiar with CV-16 Liaoning, the Chinese Navy’s first aircraft carrier. The parameters of Liaoning, its aircraft complement, its armament, and its history from the ex-Varyag to now are all fairly well documented and fairly well known.
However, what remains a matter of some discussion is the actual role of Liaoning in the Chinese Navy’s current and future order of battle. With recent news from state media stating that Liaoning is now “combat ready,” the role of CV-16 in the Chinese Navy has come under some renewed scrutiny.
This write up will seek to examine what Liaoning’s role in the Chinese Navy is likely to be, both at present, in the near term future, and in the more distant future.
But first, what does “combat ready” mean?
There are various definitions that different military forces use to differentiate between states of operational readiness, such as Initial Operating Capability (IOC), and Full Operating Capability (FOC), and for complex naval vessels such as aircraft carriers there are even more significant nuances between different states of readiness.
Naturally, we do not have a detailed rundown of all the capabilities and competencies that the Liaoning and its crew have currently mastered – this is not a surprise given the Chinese military’s overall high state of OPSEC, but this would also be an unreasonable expectation for even western military forces to openly disclose as well. Unfortunately, this means we are unable to assess what Liaoning being “combat ready” truly means in relation to something between IOC and FOC. For instance, how many J-15 fighters and how many helicopters constitute “combat ready,” or how many pilots are certified for carrier aviation and under what conditions does that certification constitute, or what is the state of readiness and sortie rate generation of the ship’s fighter complement? Not to mention, how well is the Liaoning able to operate in an integrated carrier strike group, and what is that rate of readiness?
Those are all questions that have yet to be answered, but they are also questions that we will likely never have an answer to.
But despite these unknowns, the announcement of Liaoning as being “combat ready” does reveal one significant critical morsel of information – that is, the Chinese Navy intends for Liaoning to be ready for combat in the first place.
Training ship? Experimental ship?
The Liaoning has been variously described as a “training ship” or a ship to conduct “scientific experiments,” the latter of which is a description that has been used by the Chinese Navy in the past.
The “training ship” label on the other hand, is one which has been attached by a number of western and English speaking military observers, and has been raised again in a few recent write ups in response to the statement of Liaoning being combat ready, suggesting that Liaoning could not be combat ready because its role is that of a training ship
In this author’s opinion, neither “training ship” or “experimental ship” captures the role of Liaoning in the Chinese Navy, because the nature of both of those terms mean the ship would be exclusively relegated to those roles – either that of only a “training” capacity or that of only an “experimental” role.
Even without the recent disclosure of Liaoning being “combat ready,” one only needs to observe the Liaoning’s weapons and sensors fit, not to mention following the spate of tests and training photos and footage that has been released, to realize that the former ex-Varyag hulk was refitted into a ship that is meant to be capable of functioning as a fully operational aircraft carrier. In other words, the configuration and fitting out of Liaoning is most definitely not relegated to be only a training ship or an experimental ship, and is instead consistent with what would be expected for a ship capable of combat operations.
So what is Liaoning’s role?
In this author’s opinion, Liaoning’s role in the Chinese Navy at present, and in the near term future, should most accurately be described as a “seed carrier”.
A “seed carrier” or perhaps more generally speaking a “seed capability” is not a term that is consistently used in the common lexicon, however it is very much related to the practice conducted by all military forces when a new capability is introduced. When a new type of fighter or destroyer or any other type of equipment is introduced to a military, it is first assigned to a unit whose responsibility is often to evaluate that capability, develop training procedures, doctrine, tactics and allow for smoother and more rigorous proliferation of that capability as well.
In air forces and some navies, dedicated units may exist to conduct this type of test and evaluation work. However, in the case of Liaoning, it does not make operational or fiscal sense to dedicate an entire aircraft carrier for either a training role or an experiment role for the entire duration of that carrier’s service. This is where Liaoning’s role as a “seed carrier” comes in – essentially, this term is to suggest that Liaoning as a ship is capable of operating as a fully combat capable aircraft carrier, but its actual role in the Chinese Navy will shift as time passes.
To put this into practice, in the present and immediate future the Chinese Navy will likely seek to rapidly grow the amount of experienced crew and pilots, as well as to and rapidly develop doctrine and familiarity of carrierborne aviation, therefore the Liaoning’s role will indeed likely be to train as many new personnel as physically and safely possible. This proliferation of experienced crew will allow the Navy to have a reservoir of relatively experienced personnel to man the upcoming new carriers that will enter service in coming years (001A, and the first 002), and allow a smooth transition to expanded new capabilities.
However, once the Chinese Navy has a larger number of carriers in service (with three carriers reasonably expected by the the early 2020s), the role of CV-16 Liaoning will likely shift to that of a more standard combat capable carrier, because by then the Chinese Navy will be fielding enough carriers in service and have enough experienced personnel in its ranks to be able to conduct a more regular training schedule among all its carriers, in between their regular service and maintenance cycles. In other words, with more carriers in service, there is no longer a need for all training activities to be exclusive to CV-16 Liaoning, and with more carriers and more experienced personnel in the Chinese Navy, the Liaoning will take up the regular combat roles that is was reconstructed for.
Therefore, the “training ship” and “experimental ship” labels are only half correct – the Liaoning is indeed predominantly performing those two roles at present, however the physical state of Liaoning overwhelmingly suggests its roles will not be “confined” to that of a training ship or experimental ship forever. Instead, Liaoning is intended to be capable of operating as a fully combat capable aircraft carrier, but is only currently relegated to predominantly training duties due to the presently nascent state of Chinese Naval Aviation and the demands for future growth.
This betrays a common problem with some professional, semi-professional and amateur Chinese military pundits – the inability to place the role of current formative Chinese military capabilities within the context of the future. This issues rears its head not only when discussing the Chinese Navy’s carrier ambitions, but also in terms of the Chinese Navy’s overall future capability requirements, and all virtually all elements of modernization of the Chinese Air Force and the other branches of the Chinese military as well. New capabilities are often perceived in its immediate context and possibly in the context of the immediate future, when in reality new capabilities and equipment should be seen as part of multi year, decade long or even multi decade long procurement and development goals.
So what does “combat ready” mean?
If Liaoning is intended to fulfill mostly training duties in its present and foreseeable future, where does that leave the recent claim of Liaoning being “combat ready”? How can a ship both operate as a training ship and also be combat ready?
The answer is fairly simple, but again it needs to be placed within context of the Chinese Navy’s current priorities. At present, the Chinese Navy’s foremost priority in its sole carrier is to train new crew and develop a healthy reservoir of personnel to enhance the commissioning of additional carriers in coming years. However, the Chinese Navy also likely recognizes that there may be contingencies in the immediate future whereby Liaoning may be called into a combat role, even if that combat role may not be fully competitive with high end opposing forces. Therefore, it is likely that Liaoning will be operated in a training role in the immediate future, but also retain the capability to conduct some limited combat operations if such a need is called upon.
Liaoning will also likely operate in waters relatively close to China’s shores in its immediate future. This makes sense to enhance the training and educational role of Liaoning, due to the benefit of being in close proximity to land based institutions and facilities, but it makes strategic sense given the bulk of the potential conflict regions for China happen to reside in the Western Pacific close to China’s shores as well. Therefore, even though the combat readiness of Liaoning now and in the immediate future will likely not approach that of an experienced carrier aviation fleet like the United States Navy, the mere presence of an initial combat ready Liaoning in the Western Pacific significantly enhances the Chinese Navy’s overall deterrence posture and overall combat capability at the location where China needs it most.
Conclusion: Liaoning is the seed for future power projection
Liaoning is a seed that has been planted in the Chinese Navy, and if China’s overall economic and social development proceed smoothly in coming years, the lessons and capabilities developed from Liaoning will set the stage for the growth and blossoming of future Chinese Navy fixed wing carrier aviation in the 2020s, and 2030s and beyond.
Assuming there is no conflict scenario that requires the Chinese Navy to deploy Liaoning, then CV-16 itself will likely not perform any sort of regular distant water deployments or combat operations until 2020 if not later. It is in this period that the Chinese Navy is expected to have a more practical number of carriers (likely 2-3) in service, offering greater flexibility and availability of carriers for more consistent deployments, as well as more availability for training, not to mention a much greater mass of human expertise and experience in carrier operations that can be placed in potential harms way.
Liaoning itself will likely remain in service for decades to come, given it was only commissioned in 2012 after a very comprehensive reconstruction effort. Liaoning and its under construction semi-sister CV-17 (001A class) are both ski jump equipped carriers, which are expected to be superseded in terms of overall capability by the 002 class catapult equipped carriers, which will not only have greater flexibility in launching fighter aircraft and be capable of launching fixed wing AEW&C, but are said to be larger than both CV-16 and CV-17 as well. However, both CV-16 Liaoning and CV-17 will still have a role in the Chinese Navy even once catapult carriers become more common place post-2020, as both ships will likely remain viable platforms for fielding fighter aircraft (including catapult compatible fighters such as J-15A and the eventual 5th generation carrier based fighters) that the Chinese would not lightly part with.
The geopolitical implications of the development and growth of Chinese Navy carrier capability cannot be understated. While this capability will probably not be voluntarily exercised until the early 2020s, the need to properly observe current projects and absorb new information cannot be understated.
Key areas that are relatively easy to observe, include the development of new carrier based aircraft (such as J-15 fighter aircraft, the expected upcoming carrier based AEW&C, and naval helicopters), the production and commissioning of new surface combatants (including destroyers such as the 052D class and 055 class, as well as frigates such as the 054A class and expected 054B class), the production of replenishment ships (including the 23,000 ton 903A class AOR and the massive 45,000-50,000 ton 901 class AOE), and of course construction of new aircraft carriers themselves. More difficult areas to observe due to higher OPSEC, include development of nuclear submarines, as well as the development of general mission subsystems, and of course progression of crew training and competencies which are all kept close to the Navy’s chest.
However, integrating all of these indicators together will provide the most robust projection and timeline of future Chinese carrier capabilities available to observers, whether they are amateur armchair admirals relying exclusively on open source intelligence, or professionals in the industry or government who want an easy to access and low cost method of predicting the future power projection capability that China will have access to.