17 October 2012

Delicate Touch: Flight Operations Begin on China’s First Aircraft Carrier

Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins, “Delicate Touch: Flight Operations Begin on China’s First Aircraft Carrier,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 17 October 2012.

Less than a month after China officially commissioned the Liaoning, its first aircraft carrier, photos appearing to show aircraft operating over the carrier have raised a host of questions, including how long it might take for China to make the carrier fully operational.

The photo spread – published earlier this week by the Global Times, a tabloid under the aegis of the official Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily – includes several images of a J-15 fighter aircraft flying just above the deck of the Liaoning, as well as images of a Z-8 search-and-rescue helicopter taking off from the carrier.

The first question is what the photos actually show.

Based on the images themselves and circumstances of their publication, it’s most likely that the J-15 was performing a “touch-and-go” flight pattern when it was photographed. Because a successful aircraft launch from the Liaoning would be a major point of pride, worthy of official media confirmation barring mishaps, it seems clear that the J-15 flew in from a shore base. In addition, if the PLAN is allowing photos of any type of carrier flight operations to be published, there would be little strategic reason to only show the touch-and-goes if there had actually been a successful takeoff from the ship.

Moreover, photos meant to publicize an actual takeoff from the ship would most likely include a J-15 sitting in the launch position and an aircraft actually moving up the ramp under power (with afterburners) on its way to becoming airborne. The J-15’s orientation with respect to the deck strongly suggests touch-and-go flight, rather than a launch from the Liaoning’s “ski jump” takeoff ramp. In the photos, the aircraft has all of its wheels off the ground when it is aligned with the ramp. In contrast, Russian video of Sukhoi’s SU-33 Sea Flanker (upon which the J-15 is based) taking off from a ski-jump carrier like Liaoning reveals that the plane’s wheels do not leave the ground until it literally flies off the end of the ramp.


A major gap remains between recent touch-and-go flights and actual combat launches and recoveries. In a real operating environment at significant distance from Chinese air bases, aircraft laden with fuel and weapons will have to take off from a carrier and then later land on it. This is a complex process fraught with risks.

There are three photos that, when they emerge, will reflect how China’s carrier aviation proficiency is really progressing: Images of a J-15 landing on the carrier and coming to a complete stop by catching deck-based arresting wires; images of the fighter sitting in the launch position with engines at full afterburner; and images of the fighter actually going off the end of the flight deck.

In other words, the apparent touch-and-go operations on Liaoning are small steps toward a much bigger leap forward in achieving a fully operational carrier with a capable air wing – an objective that is unlikely to be realized for several years.

On the positive side for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the fact that the ship is out at sea working with fixed wing aircraft and helicopters suggests the PLAN leadership seeks to spend significant time underway and train up carrier crews. Pilots are part of a highly diverse set of personnel who must choreograph their actions very tightly for a carrier to function and be combat-effective. As such, it will be important for the PLAN to give its carrier personnel such as deck crew, air controllers, ordnance handlers, and mechanics opportunities to log significant time at sea to gain experience and improve their skills.

When a navy has only one carrier, it becomes a training carrier simply as a matter of necessity. Yet Liaoning’s outfitting with capable air defenses suggests that even if it is primarily a training ship, it might someday be capable of operational service. Precedence for this can be found in the U.S. Navy with the USS Lexington, which served to qualify student aviators and train active duty and reserve aviators from 1962-1991—and served as a sea-based filmmaking set in later years—and which briefly returned to operational status during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Indeed, over the past few years, Chinese deck aviation development has evolved in both nature and rhetoric as Beijing gradually voiced carrier ambitions, revealed Liaoning’s refitting, commissioned this first hull, and now is beginning initial flight exercises with it. Beijing has taken pains to maintain a light touch, but is making progress that will add up over time.


For recent analysis, see Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins, “The Calm Before the Storm: China’s About to Find Out How Hard it is to Run an Aircraft Carrier,” Foreign Policy, 26 September 2012.

Click here for another recent assessment concerning Liaoning that references statements by important PLAN-affiliated experts: Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “Introducing the ‘Liaoning’: China’s New Aircraft Carrier and What it Means,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 25 September 2012.

For further background on Chinese aircraft carrier development, see also:

Historical highlights from articles listed below, offered in Andrew S. Erickson, “China’s Ministry of National Defense: 1st Aircraft Carrier “Liaoning” Handed Over to PLA Navy,” China Analysis from Original Sources, 25 September 2012.

Explanation of naming in Andrew S. Erickson, “China Will Name its First Aircraft Carrier ex-Varyag “Liaoning”: PRC State Media Portal,” China Analysis from Original Sources, 10 September 2012.

Overall analysis offered in Andrew S. Erickson, Abraham M. Denmark, and Gabriel Collins, “Beijing’s ‘Starter Carrier’ and Future Steps: Alternatives and Implications,” Naval War College Review 65.1 (Winter 2012): 14-54.

Coverage of the ex-Varyag’s sea trials offered in Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “China Realizes Carrier Dream,” The Diplomat, 10 August 2011.

The longer report on which that post is based is Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “China’s ‘Starter Carrier’ Goes to Sea,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 43 (9 August 2011).

An early assessment of the larger implications of China’s deck aviation development offered in Abraham M. Denmark, Andrew S. Erickson, and Gabriel Collins, “Should We Be Afraid of China’s New Aircraft Carrier? Not yet.,” Foreign Policy, 27 June 2011.

Relevant defense industrial factors discussed in Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “LNG Carriers to Aircraft Carriers? Assessing the potential for crossover between civilian and military shipbuilding in China,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 12 (18 December 2010).

Early assessment of Chinese aircraft carrier options laid out in Andrew S. Erickson and Andrew R. Wilson, “China’s Aircraft Carrier Dilemma,” Naval War College Review 59. 4 (Autumn 2006): 13-45.

For analysis on aircraft that may eventually fly off China’s aircraft carrier, see Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “‘Flying Shark’ Gaining Altitude: How might new J-15 strike fighter improve China’s maritime air warfare ability?,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 38 (8 June 2011).

For related analysis on drivers and constraints concerning Chinese deck aviation, see 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) 35 (18 May 2011).