After more than a decade of speculation about China obtaining an aircraft carrier, there appears to be some movement in that direction -- although not related to procurement of a ship. Rather, there are reports that 50 Chinese naval officers have begun a pilot training program at the Dalian Naval Academy to provide a cadre of carrier-based aviators.
The Chinese Navy already has a large, shore-based air force, which includes more than 400 aircraft, mostly fighter/attack types, but also a score of Chinese-produced Tu-16 Badger strike aircraft as well as training and transport aircraft. There are some 26,000 personnel assigned to the naval air arm, according to the web site "Periscope."
The training program for the 50 students is reported by some sources to cover a four-year period. The training will largely be conducted at the Faculty of Automation Engineering at the Dalian school, which in one of several Chinese naval education institutions. The students will also learn seamanship alongside their colleagues who will become surface ship and submarine specialists.
The program will include flight training. The major questions are (1) will their flight training include carrier operations and (2) how and when will China acquire a carrier. With respect to the first, while simulated carrier-deck training can be conducted ashore, at some stage the student pilots must go aboard ship. This could be done through agreements to train aboard a foreign carrier -- possibly Russian or Indian. The U.S. Navy periodically permits carrier ops from its carriers for the carrier-less Argentine naval air arm.
The second issue -- of Chinese carrier procurement -- is far more perplexing. Press reports continue to declare that the Chinese Navy is rehabilitating the never-finish Soviet carrier Varyag, moored at Darlian since 2002, to constructing a nuclear-propelled "super carrier" of almost 100,000 tons, i.e., the size of the U.S. Nimitz (CVN 68)-class carriers. Both of those options are highly unlikely. Other than a new coat of paint, the Varyag has had no work done on her since arriving at Dalian; she lacks electronic gear, radars, and other vital equipment, and her engines are inoperable. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that many of the equipment producers for the Soviet carrier program are no longer making the appropriate equipment or are no longer in business. The cost of making the Varyag operational would be similar to that of constructing a new ship. (The Varyag design dates to the 1970s.)
Similarly, the cost and effort to design and construct a 100,000-ton ship as China's first carrier could instead produce two ships of perhaps half that size, a much more efficient approach to the problem. And, of course, having two ships available would provide more at-sea time for the carriers.
New construction ships could certainly be built in China, which has produced very large merchant ships, although destroyers are the largest warships that have been built in the country. A class of LPD amphibious ships of about 17,000 tons full load is now under construction. Another option would be to have a carrier built in the Ukraine, where the Black Sea Shipyard No. 444 constructed all previous Soviet aircraft carriers. Those ships were the largest warships to be constructed outside of the United States since the end of World War II. The Ukrainian government would certainly welcome a contract from China to construct a major warship in the yard.
Of significance, in the late 1980s the Chinese Navy had another naval training program in which nine pilots were graduated from a three-year training course. They were then assigned to shipboard duties and, reportedly, all have become destroyer commanding officers. Some observers believe that these men could become the commanding officers of a future Chinese carrier force. The program was interesting because Chinese naval aviators -- like their Soviet counterparts -- are not "line" officers in the Western sense and normally do not serve as ship's company, and cannot succeed to command of a ship.
Another complication is the issue of carrier-based aircraft. In the past, Chinese Navy pilots have reportedly undertaken short-run takeoffs and landings using the indigenous J-8 fighter on a simulated carrier deck, but the aircraft's poor aerodynamic performance makes it impossible for real shipboard operations. The indigenous, third-generation J-10 and J-11 fighters are potential candidate, but both would require substantial structural modifications before they could take off and land on a carrier deck.
The Russian press has reported the Chinese purchase of up to 50 Sukhoi Su-33 Flanker-D fighter-attack aircraft. These fighters, manufactured by the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Production Association, were to be delivered to China 2007-2008. But none are known to have entered Chinese service -- assuming that the reports of their sale are correct. The Su-33 (formerly Su-27K series) are flown aboard the Russian Navy's only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. (The Chinese Navy has experience with Sukhoi aircraft, currently having 24 land-based Su-30MKK2 fighter-bombers since 2004. Thirteen countries fly variants of the Su-27 Flanker series, including the Chinese Air Force.)
There is no question: The Chinese Navy is seeking to develop a carrier capability; but there are many, many questions about how that goal will be achieved.