As Strategy Page reported last week, the PRC Navy (or, more correctly, the People's Liberation Army Navy) has begun training its first class of naval aviators. The PLAN officers will undergo a four-year course of instruction that will turn them into fighter and helicopter pilots, capable of operating from a carrier.
Meanwhile, Chinese engineers and shipbuilders are refurbishing the vessel that will serve as Beijing's first aircraft carrier. The Shi Lang (formerly the Russian carrier Varyag) has been berthed at a Chinese shipyard in Dailan since 2002. While it's difficult to assess progress on the refurbishment effort (at least, without overhead imagery), work on the carrier is continuing:
While the ship is under guard, it can be seen from a nearby highway. From that vantage point, local military and naval buffs have noted that some kind of work is being done on the ship. The only visible signs of this work are a new paint job (in the gray shade used by the Chinese navy) and ongoing work on the superstructure (particularly the tall island on the flight deck.) Many workers can be seen on the ship, and material is seen going into (new stuff) and out of (old stuff) the ship. The new contracts are believed to be for more equipment for the Varyag, in addition to the non-custom stuff already going into the ship.
By some accounts, the Shi Lang will be ready for sea trials later this year, giving the PLAN years to shake down the ship before the air wing comes aboard. However, there is some doubt that the Chinese carrier will get underway by year's end; intelligence analysts have suggested that the Varyag was sold to Beijing without a powerplant, and there's been no sign of engine installation on the re-named Shi Lang.
The Varyag was one of two fleet carriers built by the former Soviet Union. Originally envisioned as 90,000-ton, nuclear-powered rivals of the U.S. Nimitz class, the Varyag and its sister ship, the Admiral Kuznetsov wound up as downsized vessels. The nuclear reactors were replaced with conventional powerplants; steam catapults were scrapped in favor of a ski ramp, and plans for a large air wing were shelved in favor of fewer jets and helicopters.
Fully-loaded, the 65,000 ton vessel can carry up to 33 SU-33s (naval variants of the Flanker) and 16 helicopters. But, like its Russian counterpart, the Shi Lang will only operate with a dozen fighters and no more than 16 choppers, at least initially. China has already constructed a mock-up of a carrier deck, allowing prospective naval aviators to practice landings on terra firm before advancing to an actual aircraft carrier.
But, it takes more than buying a used carrier and training pilots to create a viable naval aviation program, as Neptunus Lex reminds us:
It’s one thing to buy an aircraft carrier and even to train the pilots who will fly aboard her. It’s an entirely different matter to operate her efficiently and effectively. There are literally dozens of people on the flight deck alone whose skills are operationally critical and for which no true formal training process exists - these are the last of the true guildsmen, shaped by decade-long apprenticeships under the stern tutelage of master technicians: people like Landing Signal Officers, Flight Deck Officers, Arresting Gear Officers, the Air Boss, the Gun Boss and Ordnance Handling Officer, the Handler, even Snoopy there in Flight Deck Control. Individually, each of them are nearly irreplaceable - in aggregation they represent hundreds of years collective experience operating at the finest margins of collaborative control. You can’t buy that off the shelf, and it will take decades of gradual experimentation (and operational losses) before China can dabble an operational toe in waters the US Navy has swum in continuously for almost a hundred years, along the way learning lessons written in blood and forged in fire.
All that’s before we get into the inherent limitations of trying to fight a ship using nothing but a dozen strike fighters (no matter how advanced) operating off a small-deck carrier using jump ramps.
Still, the PLAN is willing to spend whatever it takes, in terms of money and lives, to master carrier aviation. Taking a long-term view, Beijing will likely use the Shi Lang as a transitional ship, a foundation for larger, more capable carriers to come.
But you can't cram a near-century of carrier history, expertise and lessons-learned into an accelerated program. As China joins the carrier club, they will find that the learning curve is steep, and unforgiving.