By Bijan Razzaghi
China’s first Aircraft Carrier the Liaoning was commissioned in 2012 by the People’s Liberation Army Navy. The aircraft carrier was designed to be the flagship of the Chinese Navy and is based on the Admiral Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier of Russia. The aircraft carrier is diesel powered unlike the nuclear aircraft carriers of the west such as the Nimitz and Charles De Gal. The ship is limited to 45 days at sea and does not use the catapult system that the US and French Navy used, instead it uses a ramp lunch system. The ship carry’s four HQ-10 Surface to air missile Launchers and two type-1030 guns which are similar to the US navy’s PHALANX and Sea Wiz defense systems. The ship can also carry up to 24 J-15 fighters and support helicopters such as the KA-29 and Z-9.
Unlike the US Navy and French Navy ships the Liaoning does not offer a CATOBAR or catapult launch system for the aircraft, as a result this limits the maximum takeoff weight of the aircraft onboard and limits their payloads and armaments. The aircraft carrier cary’s up to 24 J-15 aircraft which is a Chinese derivative of the Russian SU-33 the J-15 is primarily an air superiority fighter but the Chinese have allegedly upgraded it with the ability to carry two YJ-83K anti ship missiles or four 500ib bombs it is unknown if they are guided or not. The aircraft has also been able to be built with an IRST infrared search and track. The J-15s can function as ship killer or air superiority interceptors and it is likely the Liaoning will able to deploy these fighters farther of China’s coast and allow China to enforce its sell proclaimed exclusion zone.
Despite this the PLA navy will not be able to emulate the power projection capabilities of the US Navy or French Navy, also in order for the Liaoning to be deployed outside of the South China sea region it is likely China will need to make use of its naval bases. One of these possible bases is in Djibouti where facilities could be built to refuel the Liaoning and allow for longer deployments yet the aircraft carrier is limited primarily to the South China Sea and Yellow Sea regions ,making its introduction into Chinese navy service not a major change to the balance of power in the region. In addition to the ships capabilities China’s J-15s do not have the same strike capabilities of the F/A-18 Super Hornets or the upcoming F-35C, which significantly limits China’s maritime, strikes capabilities.
Overall the Liaoning adds some new capabilities to the Chinese Navy such as extended range for its aircraft in the exclusion zone as well as the ability to defend their fleet with aircraft and conduct limited maritime strike operations yet it does not offer any significant power projection capabilities and cannot reach US territorial waters or those of Europe. In many ways the ship is symbolic in nature and acts as a flagship to bolster China’s brown water navy.