U.S. Naval War College professor Andrew Erickson has just come out with another interesting analysis of China’s new aircraft carrier, noting that the ship, equipped with advanced radars and defensive weapons doesn’t sound remotely like a true training carrier. Instead, it will likely serve as the blueprint for a fleet of ships designed to deploy Chinese fighter jets all over the resource-rich South China Sea and the Yellow Sea.
From his latest piece written for the war college, titled, Beijing’s Starter Carrier and Future Steps:
While ex-Varyag’s capabilities clearly represent a “work in progress,” it is not just a “training carrier” per se, as USS Lexington (AVT 16) was in the last decades of its storied career. Its hardware does not need to be upgraded radically for operational service; it already possesses a Dragon Eye phased-array radar, a new point-defense missile system, and a new close-in weapon system. The Dragon Eye can reportedly track up to a hundred targets while engaging fifty simultaneously, detect targets out to sixty-five nautical miles (120 kilometers), and track targets out to 48.6 nautical miles (ninety kilometers). Together, no matter how it is portrayed officially, these factors make it more than a training ship and rather a modestly capable warship.
Now, the ship is already undergoing sea trials following an extensive refit and modernization by China (Erickson’s report has some fascinating details as to what this may have involved). We have also seen a Z-8 helo landing on the ships deck. We all know that China is likely going to use the ship to figure out how to operate a fleet of aircraft carriers based on its design.
Erickson however also points out that the ski jump design of the ship reveals what it, and any future Chinese carriers using a ski jump, will be used for operationally; to provide air defense over Chinese ships operating in its “Near Seas” — a swath of water extending throughout the South China Sea and Yellow Sea to the borders of Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia.
Ex-Varyag itself is smaller than American carriers (roughly sixty-five thousand tons vice a hundred thousand—see the table). Also, instead of the catapult used by American carriers to launch planes into the air, China’s new carrier features a “ski jump,” a bow ramp that helps aircraft take off. Without catapults ex-Varyag will likely be unable to launch the heavier aircraft needed for ground strikes, intelligence collection, or midair refueling—relegating the ship primarily to extending air cover beyond China’s shores. This largely accords with Chinese writings on the utility of carriers, which emphasize their importance in providing air cover for naval operations. The “extended air cover” role indicated by the technical aspects of ex-Var yag generally conforms to Admiral Liu’s conception of Near Seas defense.
He goes on to say that the inclusion of a ski jump (or a catapult system capable of launching heavier planes) on future Chinese carriers will be a very good indication of what China intends to use its carriers for in the long-term:
Li Jie says ex-Var yag will be a viable weapons system, albeit with much less operational capability than its American peers. He acknowledges that ski-jump carriers cannot launch aircraft that are as heavy, carrying as much fuel or weaponry, or do so at the same high rates as can a CATOBAR ship.
In fact, Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo calls ex-Varyag’s use of a ski jump a “mistake” because it precludes the ability to launch AEW aircraft. Accordingly, and as noted, China’s second domestic (and third operational, after ex-Var yag) hull is likely to offer truer indications of where China is heading with carrier design.
Click here to read the entire report.