19 May 2011

China SignPost™ (洞察中国) #35: The ‘Flying Shark’ Prepares to Roam the Seas: Strategic pros and cons of China’s aircraft carrier program

Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “The ‘Flying Shark’ Prepares to Roam the Seas: Strategic pros and cons of China’s aircraft carrier program,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 35 (18 May 2011).

China SignPost 洞察中国–“Clear, high-impact China analysis.”©

China’s budding aircraft carrier program is provoking energetic debate among Chinese and foreign observers. The former Ukrainian carrier Varyag (called “Shi Lang” by some Chinese Internet sources) is now being rapidly refitted in China’s Dalian Naval Shipyard. It is likely to represent a modest and training-focused beginning to a small set of first-generation Chinese dedicated deck aviation platforms, which will ultimately employ such indigenously-developed carrier aircraft as the J-15 Flying Shark.

China will likely build ~3-4 hulls to permit at least one to be at sea while the others are being used for training or being refitted. Various Chinese sources predict that the ex-Varyag could be “launched” and have some form of “harbor and sea trials” this year, perhaps as early as July. If so, when combined with the 11 January flight test of the J-20 stealth fighter and increasing training involving J-10 aircraft (a variant of which may be exported in the next few years), this will be a banner year for Chinese military aviation development.

Against this backdrop, it is important to provide a proper strategic context and assess the likely pros and cons the development and eventual deployment of carriers holds for China. A viable carrier capability would certainly offer the beginnings of a new level of power projection capability. Having a clear sense of what the strategic advantages and weaknesses of carriers are for the PLA Navy (PLAN) will help the U.S. and other regional powers formulate more effective plans and strategies to help cope with China’s nascent carrier capability. …