Chinese aircraft carriers: myth or reality?
In January of this year, one of the Hong Kong newspapers reported, citing Wang Ming, the party leader in the Chinese province of Liaoning, that China had begun building its second of four planned aircraft carriers. The ship will be built at a shipyard in the city of Dalian, and it will be launched into the water in six years. A special highlight of this news is that the new aircraft carrier will become purely homegrown, Chinese, in contrast to the first experience of the PRC in this area. Everyone will probably remember the story of the unfinished heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser of project 1143.6, which was first called “Riga”, then “Varyag”, but did not enter service due to the collapse of the USSR. Once in the ownership of Ukraine, the ship in a state of 67% readiness was sold to a Chinese company allegedly to create a floating amusement park. The United States did not believe in the version of entertainment and strongly persuaded Turkey not to pass the semi-finished product through the Bosphorus, however, the Varyag nevertheless swam to the shores of the Middle Kingdom almost two years after leaving Nikolaev.
Break out of the chain
And then the predictable happened: China completed the ship, though not in the TAKR format, but in the form of an aircraft carrier, and in September 2012 under the name "Liaoning" it was adopted by the Navy of the People’s Liberation Army. Following were reports of the successful landing of the Shenyang J-15 fighter on the Liaoning deck, which was a sign of China gaining fixed-wing carrier-based aircraft. In December last year, the PLA naval forces conducted exercises in the South China Sea with the participation of an “aircraft carrier battle group” and even managed to get in close contact with the US Navy ships, which almost caused a conflict. Now it is stated that by 2020 China intends to have four aircraft carriers for operations both in coastal seas and in the open ocean. So, soon we can expect reports of the laying of new aircraft carriers, which are likely to generally repeat the design of the "Varyag-Liaoning."
To understand why China needs aircraft carriers in general, it’s worthwhile to dwell a little on how the Chinese military strategists see the situation of their historically purely continental country in relation to the surrounding Pacific space. This space, from their point of view, is divided into two parts. The first is the coastal seas, limited by the “first chain of islands”, on which the military presence of large states, primarily the USA, but also Russia and Japan, is strong. This is a chain of archipelagos stretching from the tip of Kamchatka through the Japanese islands to the Philippines and Malaysia. And of course, in this chain there is the main headache of China - Taiwan, a military conflict around which cannot be excluded from the scenarios. With regard to this coastal zone, China has a doctrine, commonly referred to as A2 / AD: “anti-intrusion / closure of the zone”. It is understood that, if necessary, the PLA should be able to counteract enemy hostile actions within the “first chain” and in the straits between the archipelagos. Including, it is supposed to counteract the US Navy carrier strike groups. But in order to fight off their shores, it is not at all necessary to have aircraft carriers - the zone is perfectly shot through by coastal means. In particular, China places special hopes on a ground-based Dong Feng-21D ballistic anti-ship missile, which appears to be the “killer of aircraft carriers”.
Another thing is that China, with its growing ambitions, would not want to be locked up behind the “first chain of islands”, and the Chinese admirals dream of gaining freedom of action in the open ocean. To prevent these wishes from appearing unfounded, last year a group of five Chinese ships passed the Laperouse Strait (between Hokkaido and Sakhalin), then circled Japan from the west and returned to its shores, passing north of Okinawa. This campaign was presented by the Chinese leadership as a breakthrough of the blockade of the "first chain of islands."
Leaks or fan art?
While the Chinese are mastering Soviet technology and carefully sticking their nose out of the “first chain of islands”, mysterious pictures with hieroglyphs are being discussed on sites and forums devoted to military-technical topics. They allegedly show the upcoming PRC megaprojects in the field of aircraft carrier shipbuilding. The growing military and economic power of China is so intriguing to the whole world that images that look more like fan art of computer game lovers do not leave anyone indifferent. A catamaran aircraft carrier with two decks looks especially impressive, from which two aircraft can launch at once. In addition to multi-role fighters, reminiscent of our Su-27, on the decks there was a place for helicopters and aircraft of the early warning system.
Another concept of this kind is an aircraft carrier submarine: a gigantic, apparently, ship with a flattened hull, which, in addition to a set of missiles with nuclear warheads and anti-ship missiles, also has a waterproof hangar for 40 aircraft. When the boat is in the surface condition, the gates of the hangar open and planes can go on a mission. In addition, a huge submarine will supposedly be able to serve as a base for submarines of standard sizes.
It seems that it was the dream of going beyond the “chain of islands” that also gave rise to the idea of a cyclopean floating base, which is difficult to call a ship. It looks like an elongated parallelepiped launched onto the water, on the upper edge of which there is a runway 1000 m long. The strip width is 200 m, the height of the structure is 35. In addition to the function of an airfield, the base could serve as a sea pier and also become a place of deployment units of the marine corps. That is, the idea is based on the desire to pull this thing out by tugboats somewhere further into the sea and set up a powerful stronghold surrounded by waters, which would surpass any American aircraft carrier in scale and equipment.
All these fantastic “projects” make a very strange impression both with their obvious discrepancy with the level of modern Chinese technologies, and with their engineering viability and military expediency as a whole. Therefore, it is difficult to say whether we are dealing with real leaks of design projects, the “black PR” of the PRC government, or simply with the increased computer literacy of the Chinese population who have mastered 3D modeling programs.
Springboard vs catapult
So who and why is China trying to catch up with its carrier program? The first motive that comes to mind is rivalry with the United States. However, developing the theme of aircraft carriers on the basis of projects with the index 1143, China is unlikely to achieve much. Liaoning is able to take on board only 22 aircraft, which, of course, is very small compared, for example, with the nuclear giants of the Nimitz class, which can accommodate 50 more aircraft. Once the designers of the Soviet TAKR, having not solved the problem of creating a steam catapult to disperse aircraft at the start, came up with a kind of springboard. A ride on it, the fighter tossed up, as it were, which created a reserve of altitude for gaining the desired speed. However, such a take-off is fraught with serious restrictions on the weight of aircraft, and therefore on their armament. True, military analysts do not exclude that a catapult will nevertheless be used in new versions of Chinese aircraft carriers, and the J-15 will be replaced by a lighter aircraft, possibly based on a fighter (presumably) of the 5th generation J-31. But until all these improvements happen, the US military-industrial complex will not stand still.
Last fall, the first American aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford was baptized from the eponymous new class, which will replace the Nimitz class. He will be able to take on board up to 90 aircraft, but even this is not the main thing. Gerald R. Ford has incorporated many of the latest technologies that significantly increase its energy efficiency and combat capabilities. If the Chinese, perhaps, will “grow” to a steam catapult, then on a new American ship they abandoned it as the embodiment of yesterday’s technology. Now there are used electromagnetic catapults based on a linear electric motor. They allow you to disperse combat aircraft more smoothly and to avoid too strong loads on the design of the aircraft.
However, even if you avoid direct comparisons of an outdated Chinese aircraft carrier with the latest American ones, it is impossible not to notice the difference in tactics of using ships of this type in China and the USA. American aircraft carriers always follow in the center of an aircraft carrier strike group (AUG), which includes warships that provide cover for an aircraft carrier from the air, conduct anti-submarine warfare, and have powerful anti-ship means. During the exercises in the South China Sea around Liaoning, they also tried to create something like ACG, but it was noticeably different from the American one. And not only by the number and power of warships, but also by the complete absence of such an important component as support vessels - floating repair depots, fuel tankers, ships carrying ammunition. Already from this it is clear that the Chinese aircraft carrier, in any case so far, cannot serve as an instrument for “projecting power” at oceanic ranges, and it simply makes no sense to get out of the “first island chain”.
There is another power with which China has long had a difficult relationship. This is India. Although India is China’s neighbor on land and not at sea, its naval plans are probably closely monitored in the Middle Kingdom. Today, India already has two aircraft carriers. One of them is called Vikramaditya - it, like Liaoning, is a Soviet-built ship. Initially, it was named “Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Gorshkov” (project 1143.4) and was sold to India by Russia in 2004. The second aircraft carrier is much older: it was built by the British company Vickers-Armstrong back in 1959, and sold to India in 1987. It is scheduled to be written off in 2017.
At the same time, India launched a program to build a new class of aircraft carriers, already on its own. This class called Vikrant will include (as of today) two ships - Vikrant and Vishai. The first of them was launched last year, although due to financial difficulties, the adoption of the ship into service was postponed until 2018. The ship has a “springboard” characteristic of Soviet designs, calculated on the operation of 12 Russian-made MiG-29K fighters. Also, the aircraft carrier will be able to take on board eight light HAL Tejas locally produced fighters and ten Ka-31 or Westland Sea King helicopters.
Western military experts agree that the Chinese aircraft carrier program is more a political declaration of intent than an important step in military development, and the Chinese aircraft carrier ships will not be able to seriously compete with American naval forces. China is able to solve security issues in the near waters based on land bases, and the PLA Navy is not yet able to express itself seriously in the open ocean. However, if we consider aircraft carriers as an indispensable attribute of a great power, then the symbolic meaning of China's plans can be understood. Yes, and it is worthless to lag behind India.The article “Demonstration of the flag” was published in the journal Popular Mechanics (No. 3, March 2014).