What Will China’s Carrier Be Used For?

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.

  • Musson1

    If the Chinese are smart, this is a training ship.

    It takes decades to develop the skills, support and products necessary to operate a carrier effectively, evidenced by the fact that the Soviet Union never really got the hang of it.

    • ew-3

      Not so sure about the decades I keep hearing about.

      The Chinese are much more up to date then their Soviet counterparts. Their engineers are as good as ours (often better, check out the graduates of MIT and CalTech).

      The thing that doomed the USSR was their manufacturing was/is a joke. Great science and design, but lousy execution.

      But China has great manufacturing! Look at all the products we buy from them.

      Be very afraid. Do not dismiss what they are doing so easily.
      They may be ready with carriers in 10 years if it suits their needs and they see that the US is a paper tiger.

    • Roland

      Trust me they can. They invented the abacus.

    • cozine

      The art of war is based on deception. At peace time this is of course a training ship. When conflict arises…anything with so much as a bow and arrow is a war ship.

    • nraddin

      Sounds to be like a combo of training ship for crews, a training ship for doctrinal workup, Training ship on how to operate with other ships in a battle group and a training ship for how to build out a carrier. In the end it’s all training, it just training for a lot of different things. Got to be kind of nice to get a mostly completed carrier to start figuring that stuff out (Cheaper than building if it turns to be a mistake), rather than having to build one and then figure it out. (Lot of money if you can never make it work)

    • Dan

      Destroy it before it becomes a problems for us.

  • Lance

    Be sued for military ops away from China. However in a war the design is small cramped and the Soviet style carriers only carried a small number of planes compared to US carriers on a one on one basis the US Navy would sink the carrier easily. If China makes 50 of the carriers, that’s A DIFFERENT STORY.

    • tiger

      The Royal Navy And a many others would be glad to have anything as good. There is a world beyond the USN.

  • Nicky

    China has decades before they can ever match the US, France or the Brits in the Carriers. The closest they will come is meeting the Russian standards.

    • PMI

      I have no doubts that the Chinese will surpass the Russian standards within the next few decades. Honestly, the Russian standard is a pretty low bar not because the Russians couldn’t do better but because of a difference in philosophy, infighting within the military and political considerations.

      • Mastro

        Frankly I don’t think Russia has a need for a big blue water navy. The USSR barely did.

        They can have small fleets for the Black Sea and something for the Pacific- sub and frigates are mostly all they need.

        • PMI

          When I refer to the Russian standard I of course really mean the Soviet standard as the Russian Navy has been practically non-existent.

          But you are correct. That’s also why the Soviets primarily invested in subs & land based long range strike aircraft as a counter to the US Navy.

    • tiger

      Considering The Royal Navy has none, China has met your goal.

    • Stratege

      Why you put the France and Britain ahead of Russians?

  • BAJ15

    Well then, I suspect the Chinese Navy will be investing heavily in ASW as well. This makes for one high profile target for a sub. Particulary given the proliferation of modern diesel boats which are purpose built for “near sea” environments.

    • dddd

      Right now their ASW consists primarily of helos. They definitely need to make the jump to a Viking-esque or Poseidon-esque platform. I think I saw a picture recently of a prototype.

      • blight

        If they retain the Ka-31 and associated radar systems it’ll be less of a hurdle to move the system or something similar to a turboprop.

        Without catapults and large aircraft carriers their air “umbrella” is built around long-range land-based aircraft.

    • tiger

      The South China Sea is not very deep thus not very nuc sub friendly.

      • blight

        And likely too close to the PRC. If the PRC has a SOSUS net, chances are they’ve built it much closer to home…

      • joe

        To be honest, the best counter to a sub is another sub. Shedloads of diesel submarines are something the PLAN has and is expanding.

        The most likely target for this is local rivals - allowing them to put tactical air over the spratlys/nanshas, etc.

        WRT the rear admiral’s comments: The RN thought so too with the Invincible. Helicopter-mounted AEW isn’t great but it *does* work.

  • JE McKellar

    “Training” was never limited to training new carrier pilots, it means training the whole Navy, from the Admirals down to the seamen degreasing engines, how to operate a carrier and to develop appropriate tactics. If nothing else, the ship is a good stand-in for a US Navy carrier during exercises.

    The big problem the Admirals are working on, though, is how for away from land-based support assets they can safely operate a carrier. The southern reaches of the South China Sea would be nice, the far side of Taiwan better, the east coast of Africa ideal. Remember, they’re not planning a full-scale war with the US, they just want to be able to project enough power to intimidate lesser powers and discourage US intervention.

    • Nadnerbus


      People need to stop comparing this with a US Carrier strike group. They are apples and oranges, with different strategic goals in mind.

    • Adhocracy

      I agree. In the medium term this & things like it are for intervening in their overseas investments (remember their rapid & efficient evacuation of nationals for Libya).

      In the long term I think they know that carriers wouldn’t last long in a maritime superpower confrontation. That would be won with missiles and subs.

  • Mastro

    The radar is an interesting point. Surely it isn’t needed to track the few planes this thing will carry.

    Note that the Russkies always liked to load up their carriers with weapons.

    • cozine

      Note the Ford class CVN will also have AN/SPY-3 phased array radar. I guess the radar also compensate for the lack of sufficient area air defense capability in their fleet. Maybe it will be used to guide AAMs launched by other destroyers.

      Beyond that, I think this carrier is only equipped with point defense RAM and 730 CIWS. The Chinese have already removed the P-700 Granit launchers.

  • dddd

    I recommend China Aerospace Power (book) to those interested in this.



    • Nick D

      Interesting point. Pilotless = lighter weight?

  • BigRick

    a couple of Mk 48 ADCAPs will ensure that this “training” ship never never over-reaches it’s “mission”

    • Nick D

      armchair ninja?

  • TLAM Strike

    I assume China’s carrier will be used to keep internet bloggers busy posting a constant stream of wild ass speculation across the web.

    • Nadnerbus

      If one can’t endlessly conjecture about stuff with which one has only a passing familiarity on the internet, where can they?

      • joe

        Congress, usually.

        • Thomas L. Nielsen


          That seriously made my day.

          Regards & all,

          Thomas L. Nielsen

  • RunningBear

    Chinese aircraft carrier powered by tug boats. Laughably,the recent photo from the airliner depicted two tugs pulling and one tug pushing this “floating terror”. Does anyone have a photo of this “pig” underway on it’s own power? Granted screws and shaft alleys are cool but if you can’t use them, what’s the point? “Ahoy There” tow us another lap around the bath tub :), LOL!!

    • J Weich

      US aircraft carriers typically use up to 5 tug boats to move in and out of harbour. They don’t manoeuvre well in tight spaces.

    • Adhocracy

      LOL! That told you.

    • tjones

      there was a picture on foxnews that someone took on a commercial flight of the ex varag underway in the south china sea. and our carriers are much bigger the require tugs to get in and out of harbour as well.

    • blight

      I wonder if the next carrier built by a nation on this planet will adopt stuff like azi pods for maneuverability. Don’t know if it’s particularly important for military vessels like it is for cruise liners, but if it spells the difference between life and death against a torpedo or missile attack…?

  • tiger

    Long range Takeout delivery ship. The magazine is full of packets of hot mustard & Duck sauce.

    • Nick D

      Ouch. Why be nasty to other humans? What profit to you?

      • tiger

        My cat thought it was funny….

  • FtD

    China just opened its new chapter on modern carrier so everything is new for them. They need to know the hardware as experience is needed to refine their operation procedure / protocol. But as long as there’s something to their hands on, they can only get better. Good luck to them.

  • Kski

    They don’t spend money on just any old piece of Cold War junk, the chicoms are sneaky and they’ll use it to start WORLD WAR III.

    • Adhocracy

      Why would they want to do that? They’re doing very nicely out of the world as it is.

    • Nick D

      What part of this is “sneaky”? Seems intelligent to me. China is becoming a world power, they want the ability to project force in their part of the world, just as the U.S. does, in service of its political interests. Seems to me likelier (though what do I know) to be a stabilizing influence.

      As for WW III, if they really did want to start that, I gotta think they could just light off a nuke or two in the Middle East — and here’s where sneaky is useful, they make it look like a local fight that draws in the U.S., and they make like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.

      I gotta think, if your opinion of the chicoms is true, that would be their smart way to do it. Certainly cheaper than an aircraft carrier, and anyway, if they were that much intent on starting WW III, they’d be putting their money into hardening their industrial assets, so they’d make it through the global holocaust with the best toys. Of course, maybe the aircraft carrier is a diversion. Who knows? Not me.

  • Roland

    I believe they are going to use it when WWIII started.

  • Roland

    And that could be another generation. And that will rust by then.

  • http://twitter.com/4FingrsOfBurbon @4FingrsOfBurbon

    Well, its another page in the book of China rising. They can buy/build all kinds of toys now that they control the worlds economy. Projection of powering is not really a suprise for a rising nation, like it or not.

    I think it is good to see competition, it drives and invigorates innovation.

  • Mitch S.

    Could be useful diplomatically.
    Visiting some nation in say Africa with a carrier leaves the impression of China being a serious world player. (Like the Hood did for Britain before WWII)
    Also can be used for for small actions against neighbors, insurgents or pirates that threaten Chinese interests.

    • tiger

      Showing the Flag? Good point. Far more striking than the Hospital ship trip to Cuba in October. http://in.reuters.com/article/2011/10/21/idINIndi…

  • PolicyWonk

    Anyone that believes what the Chinese SAY also likely believes in the Easter Bunny. It’s their actions that count. Since this is their only carrier they will likely be fairly careful with it. However, considering how they are equipping it this is a good deal more than a simple training ship - eventually, they will deploy.

  • http://www.hcp.kk5.org Brian Black

    It is a training ship, but it will be on-the-job training. I would expect to see this ship used in some fairly tame operational environments as the Chinese find their feet.

    People should forget about comparing this one ship with the USN carrier fleet - this kind of vessel will be more than enough to kick around many countries and factions in Africa and elsewhere.

    It will be at least another generation before the glorious PLAN crushes the withered US Navy.

  • Leahcim

    What Will China’s Carrier Be Used For?….

    Mk 48 AdCap target practice.

  • BobSacamano

    Shortly after hostilities break-out, that carrier will be appropriately utilized as an artificial reef…

    • enoel

      As, doubtless, will any carrier arrayed against China’s anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles. Navies know that a modern carrier cannot be used effectively in hostilities against near equals. Swarms of ballistic and cruise anti-ship missiles can cheaply overwhelm its air defenses from beyond the operational range of its aircraft. Aircraft carriers project the impression of power against adversaries with little missile capability (which group of countries is shrinking with the ever widening availability of cheaper and cheaper missile systems).

  • Khari Wilson

    This is just the start of their carrier building program, as this one came from Russia. More than likely they will begin to perfect the design of the next one, which according to most sources, will be a home grown one. They will be able to “intimidate” the navies of the smaller countries surrounding them, namely Vietnam and the Phillipines.

    • PMI

      I’ll lay good odds that the ‘indigenous’ follow up looks a lot like the Ulyanovsk.

    • chockblock

      Yep, the Spratly Islands, the South China sea, the PLA wants a piece of the action. Don’t forget that they want to back their client states, strong horse and all that.

  • Russ

    It will make a wonderful artificial reef some day…perhaps one day soon.

  • chinaWatch

    A fleet of them to surround Taiwan.

  • Del

    The chinese military are getting better, thanks America for giving all the business to the Red Chinese.

  • BrahMos

    Haha . For the first time , Chinese ship . MADE IN RUSSIA!

  • dustime8

    Possible threat to Australia.

  • http://no michael patrick

    Can see now the Chinese Carrier’s will really have a mess of China Doll’s aboard. Thank God, one might get bored dreaming they’ll be one with red hair and blue eyes.

    PS please Mr. President don’t screw it up for morale sake.