China's Navy on the Horizon

By Captain Carl Otis Schuster, U.S. Navy (Retired)

China’s parallel development of the DF-21D antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) as a primary anti-carrier weapon indicates the new ship is not intended for carrier-on-carrier combat. 7 Rather, she will serve as a quick-reaction fleet-defense and -attack platform with her air wing intercepting enemy strike aircraft and sinking those surface threats that either are not worth expending a DF-21D or that prove impractical for ASBM engagement. Sea power projection ashore probably is an unstated tertiary mission that no regional power can afford to ignore, although the air wing’s capabilities against a modern, integrated air defense system is open to question.

Nonetheless, China’s new carrier does extend the fleet’s air cover and Beijing’s air-defense umbrella beyond the first island chain, provided the carrier enjoys support from the PLA’s shore-based AWACS, ASW, and tanker support. Any enemy contemplating surface-ship-based cruise-missile strikes against the China will have to launch them 200-300 nautical miles farther out than heretofore was the case. Additionally, the carrier provides an outstanding command, control, communications, computer, and intelligence (C4I) platform for directing operational-level naval operations or joint maritime strikes.

A Platform for Learning

Chinese officials have announced they have a plan to accept the carrier into the fleet before the end of 2012, but acceptance in the fleet, or commissioning, does not mean it will be fully operational. 8 Whatever the carrier’s equipment and technological capabilities, however, the human element remains underdeveloped. Chinese officials are being honest when they say this first carrier will be used for research, experimentation, and training. 9 She is their first carrier and although they have been training naval flight crews to operate from a carrier for years, live flight-deck operations are far more challenging and complex than simulations and static land platforms. More important, they are but a piece of the carrier operations puzzle. The Chinese need to develop the tactical and technical skills to ensure safe, effective and efficient ship–air wing operations at sea. Then they must gain an understanding of all the elements involved in both employing a carrier as part of naval task group and integrating it into a joint force structure tasked with controlling the air and ocean space.

That will take time. Some of the equipment currently thought to be suitable will prove to be inadequate, requiring improvement or replacement. Therefore, the PLAN will not realize the carrier’s full potential for another two to three years, though it will join fleet exercises for political purposes and as part of its training and development program within the next 12–18 months. Moreover, the lessons learned from that process will shape subsequent Chinese carrier construction, procedures, tactics, and training.

What Her Air Wing Will Tell Us

China’s carrier has more hangar and upper-hull space than the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov -class design on which she is based. 10 Most of that additional space will go to the air wing. The numbers of aircraft by type will vary according to mission requirements balanced against maintenance equipment and deck and hangar space availability. That balancing act will be one of the first challenges the PLAN must address, but the air wing at commissioning will reveal much about the ship’s intended primary mission and perhaps what PLAN leaders envision as the optimal air wing configuration. That vision probably will change as the PLAN absorbs the lessons of early exercises and operational deployments. The PLAN will reconfigure this carrier’s air wing again when she is relegated to a purely training role after the commissioning of her first sister ship. Meanwhile, the air wing probably won’t exceed a dozen fighters and a similar number of helicopters for the remainder of this decade.

Of the carrier’s potential air wing components, the two-seat Su-30MKK2 Flanker G—an upgraded and navalized version of the Russian Su-27 Flanker—and the Chinese-built J-15 will draw the most attention and constitute the carrier’s primary air-defense and offensive-strike platforms. China purchased 24 Su-30MKK2s from Russia in 2003 and accepted delivery a year later. 11 A multirole fighter designed to use a shortened ski-jump takeoff without catapult assistance, but make arrested landings, the Flanker Gs provide the carrier with a fourth-generation multipurpose fighter. But, there are few in service and no indications to date that more are planned for acquisition or construction.

That makes the domestically built J-15 Flying Shark the most viable candidate for future carrier air wings, though full production on that aircraft is unlikely to begin prior to 2015. 12 It isn’t clear if the J-15 can be refueled in the air, but it seems probable. Considered a fourth-generation fighter, the Flying Shark is lighter and more agile than the multipurpose Su-30, but it lacks the latter’s all-weather and precision strike capabilities. Even though production J-15s are not expected to join the first embarked operational carrier squadron before 2015, prototypes are flying now and probably will be seen operating off this first carrier within the next year or two.

The Helicopter Component

Although the fighters get the attention, the air wing’s other aircraft are what make the carrier a versatile platform. For China, those other aircraft consist entirely of helicopters. Both available indigenous models have the surface-search radars, dipping sonars, and data links to conduct close-in antisubmarine warfare, surface surveillance, and anti-surface attack missions. The Zian-8J, a license-built version of the French SA-320 Super Frelon, is the largest and most capable Chinese-built helicopter. 13 Although the PLAN has only transport and ASW variants in service, this large and powerful helicopter can carry a variety of weapons and sensor loads, including China’s C-801 antiship cruise missile. It is the only helicopter in Chinese service large enough to carry the air-search radar and related systems required to conduct airborne early warning (AEW) missions. There is no evidence of an AEW variant in production or development, although it is the best helicopter currently available for it.

The smaller but less-capable Z-9C is China’s standard shipboard helicopter. 14 A license-built version of the French AS-565MB Panther (Dauphin in U.S. publications), the Zian-9 is used for search and rescue (SAR), transport, and ASW roles. 15 Its indigenous KLC-1 radar has a range of about 50 nautical miles against a destroyer-sized target, a dipping sonar, magnetic anomaly detection gear, sonobuoys, and one or two A244 antisubmarine torpedoes. 16 It also can link targeting data to the ship or provide mid-course guidance to China’s YJ-83 antiship cruise missiles. 17 Those equipped for search and rescue have a searchlight, forward-looking infrared system and 520-lb.-capable hoist. A Z-9D that can carry two TL-10 antiship missiles reportedly is under development.

There’s a chance China’s carrier may embark the Ka-28 Helix naval helicopter, but that seems unlikely. Beijing bought eight (4 ASW and 4 SAR variants) and it has neither purchased any additional units nor started licensed production. Initially carried only on the Russian-built Sovremenny -class guided-missile destroyers (DDGs), the Ka-28s have since been seen on board the PLAN’s Chinese-built Luhai -II DDGs. Given the limited number of units available and lack of production or purchasing, the Ka-28 will see only limited testing on board China’s carrier.

Gaps a Chopper Can’t Fill

A reliance on helicopters to support aerial missions inhibits the air wing’s capabilities, particularly at long range, because helicopters cannot serve as AWACS or tanker assets. The helicopters’ low operating ceiling, compared with that of AWACS aircraft, preclude their doing more than providing surface surveillance, serving as a low-altitude AEW, and being a just-over-the-horizon complement to the ship’s long-range search radars. Helicopters also lack command-and-control and airspace management capabilities so vital to modern naval operations—deficiencies that also diminish the carrier’s capacity as a major fleet flagship. Finally, no active helicopters have the speed to refuel jet aircraft in flight, even if China were to develop such equipment for them. Therefore, the carriers’ fighters will have to rely on either shore-based tankers or use “buddy stores”—a workable expedient, but one that comes at the expense of the “buddy” aircraft’s combat-action missions.

China presently may not see those as serious shortcomings, given that it envisions the carrier operating primarily within range of shore-based AWACS, ASW, surveillance, and tanker aircraft. However, that will change with time, and the PLAN may be considering alternatives to fixed-wing aircraft for these roles as its blue-water operations expand. The U.S. Navy once envisioned cargo, ASW, and AWACS versions for the conceptual aircraft that became the U.S. Marine Corps’ MV-22 Osprey. Beijing may consider that a cheaper alternative to the costs of developing and building a conventional takeoff and landing carrier to host fixed-wing aircraft having those capabilities. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) launched from ashore, the carrier, or other ships in her task group may also come into service to conduct the air wing’s surveillance-support missions, including AWACS, but all that lies 10 to 20 years away. China’s leaders are patient and may be considering those options at this time, believing their experience with their first carrier will point the way.

Developmental Exercises

The carrier will conduct early activities near China’s coast and focus on sharpening personnel skills, especially integrating the ship’s crew and air wing. That will be followed by a series of exercises to develop the best procedures and tactics for carrier-centered task group operations. As the crew and fleet hone their capabilities and the leadership becomes more confident, the carrier’s operations will expand geographically and become more complex. The ship’s “graduation” exercise probably will be conducted in the waters southeast of Taiwan and in the northern South China Sea, areas where the PLAN began conducting moderate-scale naval maneuvers in April 2010. 18 Working with the 2nd Artillery Division’s ASBM units probably will become a key feature in some of those exercises. 19 Also, given the ship’s political importance as a national symbol, the carrier can be expected to do a show-the-flag deployment within two years of commissioning, certainly by 2018.

China’s defense white papers of 2010 and earlier imply that the PLAN’s primary mission is one of sea denial and sea control, not power projection and long-range strike. Within that context, the carrier’s main task will be to protect PLAN surface units and possibly surveillance aircraft operating beyond shore-based fighters’ immediate response range. The carrier’s air wing provides a rapid air defense response dimension to China’s blue-water naval operation but lacks the aircraft for large-scale power projection or carrier-on-carrier combat against an American-style counterpart. Nonetheless, the carrier reinforces China’s already significant and growing capacity for offensive operations within the “first island chain”—which is as much a barrier to expanded Chinese operations as it is a shield protecting the “near seas.”

Beijing seems to envision little requirement for sea control beyond the first island chain and developed the shore-based DF-21D ASBM for the anticarrier mission. But putting a carrier to sea in proximity to an intended target of that missile will raise “target separation” or potential “friendly-on-friendly” engagement concerns that will have to be addressed. The ship also has the unstated purpose of serving as a training, demonstration, and development platform to identify present and future requirements for China’s carriers, including their efficacy as fleet or task-group flagships. Finally, missing from all the discussions about China’s present and future carrier force is its impact on the navy’s logistics system. Carrier operations significantly escalate fleet logistics requirements, and China presently lacks the seagoing assets to sustain a carrier far from home. Its leaders seem to recognize that, having identified logistics as a high priority for improvement in the 2010 defense white paper. 20 The growth in designed logistics-ship capability (and their numbers) may signal Beijing’s long-term intentions for the carrier, but its present vision for her is limited.

A Baseline for Future Operations

China’s leaders may view the carrier in the limited context of the present military focus on the first and second island chain, particularly as it relates to Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. But military professionals know that plans merely provide a baseline that must adjust to emergent operational realities. China’s national security requirements reach far beyond those waters. Its trade now extends across the globe, taking its merchant ships through the dangerous waters of the Malacca Strait, western Indian Ocean waters, and West African ports.

The PLAN already deploys surface action groups to combat the piracy problem off East Africa and has signed several port-access agreements to ensure those groups receive adequate logistics support. 21 However, the piracy problem pales in comparison with the navy’s growing need to prepare for noncombatant evacuation operations, as demonstrated by recent events in Kenya, Libya, and Yemen. China said, for example, that up to 40,000 of its citizens were working in Libya at the start of the crisis there. The frigate Xuzhou was dispatched to assist in the evacuation—a gesture that coincidentally demonstrated the PLAN’s growing reach. 22

Overall, more than 5.5 million Chinese citizens work overseas, many in unstable areas of Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. 23 Those regions also provide a significant and growing proportion of the raw materials needed to fuel China’s economy. That will engender a desire, if not a need, to conduct show-the-flag visits and a have a naval presence in those regions. In fact, exercises and interactions with foreign countries are key components of China’s National Defense in 2010 white paper. 24 China has also made known its desire to participate in international disaster-relief operations. 25 The carrier is the most prestigious symbol and most capable platform available for all those purposes.

China has demonstrated great patience and frugality in its military modernization program. The lessons learned from this carrier’s employment will shape Chinese aircraft carrier design, construction, and operations—as well as the fleet’s structure—for the next decade and probably beyond. In that context, this first carrier should serve as a harbinger of the country’s naval future. A force of three operational and one training carrier may fit the PLAN’s mission requirements as spelled out in defense white papers of 2004 to 2010. It’s the requirements for projecting China’s interests after 2020 that will determine the carrier force and its operations from that point onward. The one thing that is clear right now is that the Chinese have relearned a longstanding historical lesson: Almost every country has an army, but only great civilizations have an oceangoing fleet.

1. “China’s Aircraft Carrier Sets Sail for Sea Trial,” People’s Daily , 10 August 2011.

2. “China’s Aircraft Carrier to Begin Service This Year,” China Daily , 13 March 2012,

3. CCTV-7 broadcast, 15 July 2011. and Taiwanese state television,

4. Jeremy Page, “China Says Carrier Won’t Alter Naval Strategy,” The Wall Street Journal , 28 July 2011.

5. China’s National Defense in 2010 , Information Office of the State Council (Beijing, March 2011), p. 5.

6. CAPT Bernard D. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy Enters the 21st Century , (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001), pp. 165–6.

7. Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “China Deploys World’s First Long-Range, Land-Based ‘Carrier Killer:’ DF-21D Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile,” China Sign Post , 26 December 2010.

8. Liyao, Lin, “Ex-Varyag Carrier May Join PLA Navy in 2012,” PLA Daily , 10 March 2012.

9. Geng Yansheng, “China Refitted Carrier Body for Research, Training,” Xinhua , 27 July 2011.

10. CCTV-7 Broadcast, 15 July 2011.

11. Paul Jackson, editor-in-chief, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 2008-2009 , (London: Jane’s Publishing, 2009), pp. 119–20.

12. Michael J. Cole, “First Official Images of J-15 Carrier Based Fighter Revealed,” Jane’s Defence Weekly , 4 May 2011.

13. Eric Wertheim, The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World , 15th Edition, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007), p.107.

14. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea , p.108.

15. Wertheim, Combat Fleets , p.107.

16. See Jackson, Jane’s Aircraft , p.104; and Cole, The Great Wall at Sea, p.108.

17. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea , p. 108.

18. Richard Cronin, ed., “Chinese Navy’s New Strategy in Action,” Strategic Comments , International Institute for Strategic Studies, May/June 2010.

19. The 2nd Artillery is China’s strategic and ballistic missile force.

20. China’s National Defense , pp. 9, 14.

21. Syse Abdullah, et al, The Military Balance 2011 , (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2011), pp. 195–7

22. Geoffrey Dyer, “China’s Overseas Workers in Peril,” Financial Times , 25 February 2011.

23. See Erica Downs, testimony before the U.S.-China Economic & Security Review Commission hearing on “China’s Foreign Policy, Challenges and Players,” 13 April 2011; and Sasha Gong, Chinese Workers in Africa , (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), p. 1.

24. China’s National Defense , p. 20.

25. Ibid., p. 21.

Captain Schuster directs a corporate think tank in Honolulu and teaches in Hawaii Pacific University’s diplomacy and military science program. He is a 1974 graduate of the University of South Carolina NROTC battalion and served in a variety of shipborne and staff duty assignments before retiring in June 1999.


Conferences and Events

2014 U.S. Naval Institute Annual Meeting

Wed, 2014-04-16

U.S. Naval Institute members and supporters are cordially invited to attend the 2014 U.S. Naval Institute Annual Meeting...

2014 U.S. Naval Institute History Conference

View All

From the Press

Award Presentation

Sat, 2014-04-26

"Wrecks, Rescues, and Mysteries: Air and Sea Disasters"

Sat, 2014-04-26

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership