China Launches Their First Aircraft Carrier: A Detailed Look

By Tom
Updated on

I have seen the video (embedded below). China has landed and taken off from an aircraft carrier. The unusual feature is the ski-jump, but otherwise a conventional angled flight deck.

The first pictures are a fairly normal checking of the flight deck to find anything that might get sucked into the engine or be blown around. Normal as can be.

China Launches Their First Aircraft Carrier: A Detailed Look
The landing is for quite a big bird that is set down quite competently. After which, there is a lot of folding – even the tailplane folds; maybe memory fails me, but I haven’t seen that arrangement before. Apparently a single wire for the hook is all that is needed.

The take-off is the strange part. There is no catapult and the fighter is kept on its brakes, so there is no frangible hold back. I had thought it possible to have eliminated the blast deflector plate, as the exhaust passes straight overboard – well rather safe, than sorry. The ski jump apparently eliminates the need for take-off in full burner, which at no time is lit. Given the size of the plane and the lack of catapult, the take-off weight is quite limited.

The claimed purpose of the ship is training and testing – which seems a sensible thing to do – to get some of the basic gremlins out of the system. The lack of a catapult might be a sound choice for the training purpose.

A date for an operational carrier of 2015 does not seem impossible. On top of that there will be the ability to work as a fleet. Some years ago, a Chinese submarine was reported to have surfaced near a US carrier. The purpose of that mission was probably not so much the ability to sink a US carrier, but rather the ability to work close to a carrier.

If that indeed was the purpose, then it was well considered. A carrier has all sorts of nasty stuff on board designed explicitly to punch holes into submarines – and a crew on their toes trying to avoid being sunk. So it might be a good idea to try out how much that carrier actually can observe under water – mainly to let your own carrier know you are there and avoid entering into maneuvers that might be construed as hostile – without having to communicate: “Hi Mom!”

All in all a non-operational carrier working methodically up – training wheels – but as such, not to be despised. True it will need a lot of work before an operational carrier is an actual fact. The Russians tried for – oh 10 years – to make a carrier work -and then whole country ran out of money.

The danger with such long term projects is that they are more or less based on the assumption that the opponent is slacking and not developing. We have the example with Gorshkow’s Soviet navy.:

When the first Polaris armed submarines entered service (they more or less had to run aground to get within range of something useful to destroy) the Soviet Navy started their program with the big Kresta destroyers, which made eminent sense as long as they operated within land based fighter cover. It was sort of what the “Prince of Wales” should have had when she was sunk in WW2 near Singapore. Well the Soviet Union wasn’t going to repeat that mistake – sensibly enough.

It is often forgotten how very close the Japanese submarines (and Navy as such) came to annihilating the US carrier fleet. At one point the only operational carrier was the Enterprise, which couldn’t use the deck lift in case it got stuck leaving a very large hole in the middle of the flight deck. Midway has correctly been hailed as a great turning point in the Pacific war – and rightly so; but at one time the call was a lot closer than that – we even had to borrow a carrier from the British – an evil repressed memory in US Navy circles.

Then the problem emerged with the increased range of the missiles – which took the ships out of convenient air cover (somebody will have me raked over a barbecue for referring to air operations in the Murmansk area as convenient). The Norwegians jokingly say the mosquitoes around Tromsø are so big, that they use air intake guards
to keep F-16’s out.

But, when ranges increased it was not such a good option any more and the Moscow-class helicopter carriers were developed; but they still needed air cover in the Mediterranean to remain viable. That again led to all sorts of expensive imperial gestures with Libya f.i. to defend their ship a long way from home. Probably the Moscow-class was only sufficient to give the French ICBM’s nightmares – which the French countered by resting their sub on the bottom imitating a very large clam – and about as noisy – whereas sailing was quite noticeable – but then, they were only supposed to nuke Soviet forces as they overran

Germany – the fact that quite a few Germans would be fried in the process as well hardly counted as a downside to the French. The development didn’t really address the problem of a gaggle of Los Angeles classes with long range missiles – impossible to find under the polar ice.

The next Soviet move was quite a bit more ambitious in so far as the Kiev-class carriers aimed to have some sort of self protection in the form of Forger vertical take off and landing fighters – a nearly workable solution in case the enemy didn’t intend grievous bodily harm. Neither of the Kiev-class ships really worked (at least a lot of engine trouble was reported at the time), nor did the Forger VTOL fighter. Not only that, but the Akula-class submarines had to more or less go with the carriers, and were so expensive they were known in the Soviet Navy as the Goldfish. At the same time offensive US carrier based aircraft had the range to hit the Soviet carrier where it could not hit back, and a finely woven net of anti submarine warfare assets would make life more than difficult for the sizeable proportion of the Soviet GDP. The subs were lurking below the waves with the intention of a mad ringing dash to get within torpedo range before getting hammered – or so it was hoped.

My point is: The necessary deliberate work up to a viable operational force does take so long that the potential enemy has seen it coming for a very long time – even counting a rather healthy slumber. Personally I got a lot of flak from US Naval enthusiasts for naming the coming CVN-78 Gerald Ford class as the most useless ship in the US Navy – oh – she will be launched and enter service just as the other one ship nightmare class (CVN-65 Enterprise) is scrapped. The current Nimitz-class with its aged design drawback is likely to be able to counter anything an enemy can throw at it for the next couple of decades. After that, the increased range and delivery accuracy of fighters are probably utilized by much smaller ships and/or land based aircraft.

There is a definite parallel in the BB battleships, where the Iowa-class more or less only entered service to provide deck space for signing the surrender documents – with the to last of the class sold for scrap in 1958 in the yard. The Montana-class was halted, as the Essex-class carriers were all that was needed.

The Chinese carrier construction program might very well be a potent enemy for the Kitty Hawk-class build 50 years ago and mothballed until 2015, when the Gerald Ford should become operational. The Chinese really have no other option but to design and launch ships that are obsolete BEFORE the bottle of (hopefully cheap) champagne is broken on them. But again, it will be a waste of effort, as the ships they might fight will be one or two generations more advanced. Not only that but hopefully the US Navy will have come up with something that could eliminate the ponderous trouble an aircraft carrier is. I’m not denying their use in the current environment; but they are very costly.

Leave a Comment