Friday, 25 April 2014

What will China’s future carrier fleet be?

It took China more than a decade to build its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. The Liaoning is a rebuilt soviet aircraft carrier, formally known as the Varyag. Now that China has learned to build an aircraft carrier it started to build more. News reports have confirmed that 2 new carriers are building build, one in Dailan in the north and 1 in Shanghai. Rumors have it that a total of 3 carriers are being built. No matter the numbers, everybody knows that China envisions to build several carriers and built a true aircraft carrier fleet to strengthen its navy. With a Chinese carrier fleet ready in the next several years it would be wise to speculate on what this force will look like and what capabilities it will have.

The Liaoning escorted with 2 destroyers and 2 frigates during her last training mission

Design is a major factor in asserting  what China’s future carrier fleet will look like and what it will be capable of. Carriers are divided into 2 different types of design: short take-off but arrested-recovery (STOBAR) and catapult-assisted take-off but arrested-recovery (CATOBAR). These design types also determine what kind of aircraft carriers can operate and in turn what kind of missions can be executed.

China’s only carrier, Liaoning, is a STOBAR design. Aircraft launch under their own power using a ski-jump to assist take-off. The STOBAR system has the advantage that it is simpler to build than CATOBAR — but it works only with light, and lightly armed, fighter aircraft that have a high thrust to weight ratio. From this last sentence one can easily conclude that aircraft, launched by a STOBAR system have to be light. They can carry only a limited amount of fuel and weapons. Therefor these aircraft are suited only for defense, defending the carrier and its escorts and secure air superiority directly around the task force.

CATOBAR is a system in which aircraft are launched using a catapult assisted take off and land on the ship (the recovery phase) using arrestor wires. The advantage of this system is that it can launch heavier fighters than the STOBAR system. Aircraft with a higher weight in fuel and weapons can be launched with a CATOBAR system. These aircraft have a bigger range and are more suited for offensive capabilities by bringing heavier firepower in the conflict zone.

The question is whether China will choose to use the STOBAR or CATOBAR system for its new carriers. Given that the Liaoning is a STOBAR carrier one would say that China would continue to build STOBAR carriers. However in 1985 China managed to buy the HMAS Melbourne, Australia’s only carrier and equipped with steam catapults. Although China promised to turn the HMAS Melbourne into scrap the ship was studied in depth and the ship's flight deck and all the equipment associated with flight operations was removed for study, including the steam catapults that were left on board. So China has the technology and the know how to build CATOBAR carriers by using the design of the steam catapults of the HMAS Melbourne .

As said earlier, the design of the carrier determines the kind of aircraft that is to be used on board of the carrier. STOBAR demands light aircraft like the Sukhoi SU-33, Mikoyan MiG-29 or the Shenyang J-15. These are aircraft that can carry only a small payload in weapons and a limited amount of fuel. Too much weight would prevent these planes from taking of. Their limited fuel and payload prevent these aircraft from carrying out offensive missions over a long distance. They are best suited to create air superiority over the task force itself and protect it against air attacks from enemy aircraft. Due to their low weight and the high thrust to weight ratio needed for take-off, these aircraft are very maneuverable and can easily outmaneuver their opponents in a dog fight.

CATOBAR on the other hand allows for the launch of bigger, heavier planes like the F-18 (super) Hornet and the Dassault Rafale. These aircraft can take a large amount of fuel and weapons with them, thus traveling several hundreds of miles to their target zone and delivering a large amount of firepower on their targets. It is clearly that such aircraft are best suited for offensive missions.

A downside is that a STOBAR aircraft cannot be launched with a catapult. STOBAR aircraft are light aircraft and their frame cannot withstand the forces generated by a catapult. Launching a STOBAR aircraft with a catapult will result in the aircraft being snapped in two.

So even when China is planning to build a CATOBAR aircraft carrier, it still would need to design new aircraft that are suited for operating on this carrier. This gives the intelligence community a new angle in monitoring China’s carrier program. As long as the Chinese aren’t designing and building aircraft that can be used on a CATOBAR carrier then the likelihood of China developing a CATOBAR carrier is low.

As said earlier, a STOBAR carrier has light aircraft and is suited for defense while a CATOBAR carrier is suited for offense. As the design determines the aircraft a carrier can deploy, so too do the aircraft determine the type of tactics and missions. We in the West are used to the idea that carriers are offensive weapons, bringing firepower to a conflict zone several hundreds of miles away from the carrier. STOBAR carriers can only achieve local air superiority above the carrier task group and are thus only suited for defense. So how can the Chinese overcome the limitations of a STOBAR carrier?

A western carrier task force is centered around the aircraft carrier that is the principal weapon in the task force. The cruisers and destroyers around it serve only as protection. It would be wrong to assume that China would just copy the way carriers are operated in the West.

For a long time China had to rely on frigates and destroyers to form the bulk of their naval power. These ships were armed with several anti-ship missiles to attack enemy warships. The Chinese military is strongly missile minded, this is proven by the development of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) like the Dong-Feng 21 (DF-21D) to strike at enemy aircraft carriers up to distances of 1.500 km from the Chinese shore. We can expect that China, even with the formation of aircraft carrier task forces, will still be missile minded in which the frigates and destroyers will be the offensive units or shooters. The carrier will then be used to protect these shooters against enemy airstrike until they are in range to attack. 

China has recently also found a way around the limited range of its J-15 fighters by using air-to-air refueling. The first J-15 will take off from the carrier without weapons but with all the fuel it can carry while the second one takes off with a maximum payload of weapons. Once airborne, the second J-15 fighter then refuels from the first one and can now fly further and with more weapons than when taking off in the normal configuration. The first J-15 then returns to the carrier either to get ready to refuel another fighter or to provide air cover above the carrier.

This system allows China to operate its carriers further then is normally presumed and with a heavier payload then intended. Although this tactic doesn’t fully compare against the use of a CATOBAR aircraft like a F-18, it is an interesting way to give Chinese carrier aircraft an offensive set up.

China possesses the capabilities of building steam catapults with the purchase of the HMAS Melbourne in 1985. This would allow the Chinese to start building a CATOBAR carrier faster than is anticipated since a large step in research and development is skipped. Even if China can build a CATOBAR carrier it still lacks the planes capable of operating from such a carrier as China’s current carrier aircraft, the J-15, can’t handle the forces generated by a catapult take-off. A new type of aircraft would have to be developed by the Chinese.

China’s fleet of STOBAR carriers would however fit the Chinese missile centered doctrine and carrier aircraft are just needed to protect the frigates and destroyers that are currently the main offensive units within the Chinese Navy. A CATOBAR carrier would then only be needed if China chooses to be a global maritime player and feels the need to intervene far away from its shore where planes with a long range and a high payload in weapons would allow China to intervene in a conflict zone without risking to put its aircraft carrier too close to this zone. However, using air-to-air refueling, China might have found a way in giving its STOBAR carriers a more offensive role instead of a purely defensive one.

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