The commissioning into service of China’s first domestically constructed aircraft carrier on the 17th of December 2019 marked a momentous paradigm shift, not only in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) strategic philosophy, but it also introduced a new and important participant into the areas of carrier construction and operation.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Kelvin Curnow. Kelvin’s particular area of interest is naval aircraft and aircraft carriers. He is a keen writer and over the past fifteen years he has had a number of articles published in different journals.
No longer was the West the primary proponent of aircraft carrier aviation, the launching of the SHANDONG (CV-17) meant the reality that this pre-eminence would not go unchallenged.
In 2017 the Royal Navy’s (RN’s) commissioning of HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH (R08) and the United States Navy’s (USN’s) launching of the USS GERALD R.FORD (CVN-78) marked important developments in the areas of aircraft carrier design and construction in the West. However, it was the 2017 launch of the SHANDONG on the 26th of April which marked a significant shift in the strategic balance, despite on paper it appearing to be significantly inferior to the British and American carriers.
With the intention of the UK government to send the QUEEN ELIZABETH through the South China Sea in 2021 it is relevant not only to consider the capabilities of the SHANDONG and its air wing, but how these compare those of the British carrier.
THE TYPE 002 SHANDONG DESCRIBED
The SHANDONG’s design is derived from the Kuznetsov class carrier LIAONING (Type 001) which was purchased as a hulk from Ukraine in 1995, refurbished and commissioned into service with the PLAN on 25 September, 2012. The LIAONING (CV 16) was laid down on 6 December 1985 at Shipyard 444 in Mykolaiv Ukraine, the only shipyard in the former Soviet Union which had built aircraft carriers including the four Kiev and the two Kuznetsov class.
Incredibly the story of the LIAONING began with an ex-PLA basketball star, Xu Zengping, who sealed the sale for what would become China’s first carrier. On March 19, 1998, Xu Zengping, in an open auction, outbid rivals from the US, Australia, South Korea and Japan. Secured for a knock down price of USD$20M the deal crucially included the sale of 40 tonnes of blueprints.
This would have significant ramifications. It gave China access to the blueprints used for completion of the LIAONING (ex VARYAG), and crucially plans to permit design and construction of the SHANDONG, obviating the need to undertake the drawn out process of reverse engineering key components. Aided by access to these technical drawings China’s development and deployment of aircraft carriers has been spectacular. In November 2016, less than four years after it was commissioned, LIAONING and her air wing were considered fully operational and ready for combat.
Just eighteen months later, on the 13 May 2018 the SHANDONG left a port outside the Dalian Shipyard for its first sea trial, signalling that China had completed its first domestically produced aircraft carrier in stunning rapidity.
While superficially similar to the LIAONING, the SHANDONG is very different in concept. Both the ADMIRAL KUZNETSOV and LIAONING suffer from the misconception that the Kuznetsov class was built to operate as an aircraft carrier, as understood by Western navies. Russia describes the KUZNETSOV as a Tyazholiy Avianesushchiy Kreyser (TAKR or TAVKR) – ‘heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser’, and that is exactly what she is, relying on her missile armament for her main means of attack and defence, together with a small complement of fighters to provide a further layer of self-defence.
The Chinese comprehend it differently and follow the doctrine and operating procedures of Western navies which consider the aircraft carried as the primary means of both attack and defence. Hence, in the LIAONING the silos for the twelve P-700 Granit (SS-N-19 Shipwreck) anti-ship surface-to-surface missiles located below the forward flight deck in the KUZNETSOV have been removed. This has freed up storage space for fuel or ammunition. In the SHANDONG in addition to storage for more fuel and ammunition, this area is used for additional hangar space.
Superficially similar to the LIONING the SHANDONG features both significant and minor design changes. The ship weighs about 70,000 tons full load, is 1,033 ft (315 m) long and has a beam of 246 ft (76 m) at the flight deck, which makes her approximately 4,000tons heavier and 34.5 ft (10.5 m) longer than her predecessor. There are many examples of where the Chinese have not merely copied the design of the former Soviet vessel but have refined it, each pointing to her being used as an aircraft carrier in the strict sense of the term. For example, the SHANDONGs ski jump has an angle of 12.0° instead of the 14.0° on the LIAONING.
This is an angle ideal for launching the Shenyang J-15 fighter. Together with the enlarged hangar, the island which has been made smaller by 10%, and extended on sponsons in the aft-starboard quarter, space has been freed up allowing for up to eight more aircraft and helicopters to be carried. The island includes a second glazed deck which permits the bridge and flight control areas to be separate creating greater operational efficiency. It also features a faceted upper area of four Active Electronically Scanned Arrays (AESAs) for the Type 346A S-band radar.
THE AIR WING
The most significant component of the SHANDONG’s air wing is the Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark fighter. The J-15 is a reverse-engineered copy of the Russian Sukhoi SU-33 naval fighter designed to operate from the Short Take Off Barrier Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) carriers of the Kuznetsov class. The J-15 has suffered from major problems. Referring to two crashes in April 2016 an unnamed Chinese military source told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) that ‘the J-15 is a problematic aircraft – its unstable flight control system was the key factor behind the two fatal accidents two years ago’. As a result of the incidents the J-15 fleet was grounded for three months.
Even though Chinese authorities have only admitted two crashes it has been reported by the same newspaper that out of a total of twenty-four jets produced four have been lost. In addition to a series of unspecified mechanical problems with the aircraft, the shortcomings of STOBAR operations has not been lost on the Chinese military press, which in 2013 articles described the Flying Sharks as ‘flopping fish’.
Despite these issues China has refined the Russian design, equipping it with weapons, radar and systems of domestic origin which are superior to that of the Sukhoi. Nevertheless, operating from a STOBAR carrier imposes severe limitations on an aircraft the size of the J-15 which at an empty weight of 38,600 lb (17,500 kg) makes it over 6,000 lb (2,722 kg) heavier than a Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet. This makes it impossible for the fighter to launch with a full fuel and weapons load. From the two bow launching positions the J-15 has an estimated maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of between 50,000 lb (22,680 kg) and 56,000 lbs (25,402 kg) depending on wind over deck. From the waist launching position the MTOW is 62,832 lb (28,500 kg). The Sina Military Network (SMN) based in Beijing reported the J-15 could operate from the carrier equipped with two YJ-83K Eagle Strike anti-ship missiles (AShMs), two short-range PL-8 air-to-air missiles (AAMs), and four 500 kg (1,100 lb) bombs.
However, carrying a weapons load exceeding 12 tons the aircraft not be flown off a ski ramp equipped carrier.
External loads are limited to two tons when the J-15 is carrying a full internal fuel load. In this configuration the J-15 can only take off from the waist launch position. Operating from the LIAONING J-15s have been seen carrying a pair of PL-12 medium-range AAMs, along with a pair of PL-8 AAMs. Other J-15s were seen carrying two YJ-83K AShMs.
In comparison to those loads carried by Boeing F/A-18, Lockheed Martin F-35C or Dassault Rafale M catapult launched carrier fighters these are very light loads. The difficulty of launching with a light fuel load is partially ameliorated by post-launch refuelling from other J-15s carrying a Shanyang centreline buddy refuelling store.
Despite the limitations imposed by STOBAR operations, the J-15 flown by a competent pilot would be a match for its western counterparts in air-to-air combat. Developments of the J-15 include the two-seat J-15S and the J-15D, an electronic warfare aircraft analogous to the EA-18G Growler. Each variant will offer additional capabilities over the baseline aircraft but will come with the additional problem of greater weight, only exacerbating the difficulty of operating these aircraft at heavy loads.
Lacking catapults, both the LIAONING and SHANDONG rely on Changhe Aircraft Industry Corporation (CAIC) Z-18J and Kamov KA-31 helicopters to provide airborne early warning (AEW). A typical air wing of the carriers would normally consist of four Z-18J early warning helicopters, six Z-18F Sea Eagle anti-submarine helicopters and two Harbin Z-9C search and rescue (SAR) helicopters.
Signifying a important development, in mid-September 2016 the United States Naval Institute News published photographs online of a J-15 with a nose gear launch bar used for catapult launches. There are possibly four prototypes of this aircraft and these have reportedly been tested using both the steam catapult and Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) at Huangdicun Airbase in Liaoning province, northern China. Both catapult tracks are approximately 460 ft (140 m) long. (This is not the first occasion on which the PLAN has undertaken tests with catapults.
In 1985 the catapult, arresting gear and landing sight were removed from the former Majestic class carrier HMAS MELBOURNE and installed at a base in Dalian on a replica flight deck where a modified Shenyang J-8 II was used for flight tests. MELBOURNE had been sold in February 1985 to the China United Shipbuilding Company ostensibly for scrapping.) These trials are in preparation for the service entry of the Type 003 Catapult Assisted Take-Off Barrier Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) 85,000 ton aircraft carrier, probably in 2024. An image of the carrier was posted on Chinese social media service WeChat in 2018 by the No. 701 Research Institute of the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC). It indicated that the carrier will be equipped with two bow and one waist catapult. PLAN sources have claimed the carrier will have EMALS rather than steam catapults. Given that the Type 003 will be conventionally powered and EMALS requires significant electrical power, usually provided via nuclear reactors, it is a significant achievement if indeed the Chinese have married the two technologies. However, development of the EMALS has been burdened by the same problems faced by the American programme. On 28 November 2019 the SCMP reported that tests of the EMALS involving the J-15 demonstrated that it had ‘failed to meet the required standard’.
An image appearing online in April 2019 showed J-15 fighters and a Xian Aircraft Corporation KJ-600 Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft parked on the concrete carrier flight deck mock-up at the PLAN’s Shore Based Test Facility at Wuhan. The KJ-600, which has so far only appeared as a mock-up, is remarkably similar to the Northrop-Grumman E-2 Hawkeye, and the 1980s Soviet Yakovlev Yak-44 which also only appeared in model form.
It may be assumed that the KJ-600 relies on technology transferred from the Yakovlev design bureau. Although there is no hard evidence to support this assumption, there are ample examples of China acquiring Russian technological support to design and build its own aircraft, the CAIC Z-10 attack helicopter being a prime instance. Speculatively the KJ-600 weighs approximately 60,000 lbs which puts it in the same ballpark as the Hawkeye.
Unlike the E-2D which is equipped with the APY-9 radar featuring an active electronically scanned array, which adds electronic scanning to the mechanical rotation of the radar, the KJ-600 is depicted variously with either two or three phased arrays on a fixed radome. The KJ-600 will provide a quantum leap in capability over the AEW helicopters carried by both the LIAONING and SHANDONG if put into production.
Speculation has long surrounded the future of the J-15 which has been a useful introduction for the PLAN into operating fighters from carriers, but it is now a dated design. In April 2018 Chinese media announced that the J-15B had been placed into production, supplanting the earlier variant. Described as a 4++ generation fighter, it will feature an increased weapons payload of up to twelve air-to-air missiles (AAMs), and compatibility with both the new PL-15 active radar-guided very long range AAM and the YJ-12 Anti-Ship Cruise Missile (ASCM). The J-15B will also probably be equipped with three dimensional thrust vectoring engines, an AESA radar and updated avionics and electronic warfare systems. In December 2019 the Australian Defence Business Review (ABDR) reported that fifteen J-15B Flying Shark fighters and its J-15D electronic warfare derivative, Z-8, Z-9 and Ka-32 helicopters would equip the SHANDONG’s air wing. This is a reasonable estimate on the part of the ABDR, however, as noted above, the difficulties of operating the very heavy J-15D from a STOBAR carrier are significant, if not prohibitive. At this point there is no hard evidence to suggest that either the J-15B or J-15D have entered series production.
The Western technical press has for some time suggested that the Flying Shark may possibly be replaced by the Shenyang J-31 Gyrfalcon fifth-generation stealth fighter, an aircraft similar in size to the F-35, hence deemed suitable for carrier operations. However, in what could only be described as an amazing announcement the SCMP, quoting an anonymous military source, declared that the Central Military Commission, the People’s Liberation Army’s top decision-making body, favoured adapting the J-20 over the J-31 for its new carriers. The Chengdu Aerospace Corporation J-20 Powerful Dragon weighs 81,600 lb (37,013 kg) MTOW which in its definitive form will be powered by two Shenyang WS-15 afterburning turbofans with 180 kN (40,000 lbf) in reheat. (The current WS-10B or AL-31FM2 turbofans powering the J-20 would not provide sufficient thrust for carrier operations.) The J-20 is approximately 66.8 ft (20.4 m) long with a wingspan of 42.4 ft (13.5 m), the SCMP noting that the length of the aircraft will need to be shortened to facilitate carrier operations.
Preliminary sketches appearing in Western media depict it with folded wings. By way of comparison the J-15 has a MTOW of 62,832 lb (28,500 kg), is 71 ft 10 in (21.9 m) in length and has wingspan of 48 ft 3 in (14.7 m). Weight alone would make operations from a STOBAR carrier marginal, if not prohibitive. Rather than shortening the length of the aircraft, an odd statement by the SCMP given that the J-20 is not as long as the J-15, a weight reduction exercise would prove of more benefit. Moreover, the task of modifying the J-20 for carrier operations would be very difficult. Necessary modifications would need to be made to the undercarriage, the control laws for the fly by wire (FBW) system would need to be rewritten, the wing flaps would need revision, high lift devices may need to be added and the addition of thrust vectoring nozzles may also be required.
The J-20 has a maximum speed of Mach 2+ speed and an estimated range of 6,000 km (3,700 mi, 3,200 nmi) with full fuel load. These are significant numbers and signal that the PLAN is serious in maximising the potential of its future CATOBAR equipped aircraft carriers. On pure statistics the J-20 will far outstrip the kinetic performance parameters of the F-35C and F-35B, Hornet and Rafale. Given equivalence in pilot proficiency, with better stealth characteristics the J-20 should prove superior to F/A-18s and Rafale in overall performance. However, against F-35s which have a lower radar cross section (RCS) of 0.001 m2 as opposed to 0.25 m2 for the J-20, the balance would swing very much in the Lightning’s favour mainly because the detection range of the J-20’s Type 1475 (KLJ-5) AESA radar would be considerably inhibited. Detecting a J-20 using its AN/APG-81 AESA radar and AN/AAQ-37 Electro-optical Distributed Aperture System (DAS) before being identified by the Chinese fighter’s sensors, and armed with MBDA Meteor AAMs, the RN’s F-35Bs would have a significant advantage, with the high prospect of a ‘first-look, first-shot’ hence high kill probability (Pk).
Should the long-range shot miss and the two fighters join in the merge the outcome would depend on manoeuvrability, sensors, weapons and pilot skill. Despite the F-35’s poor reputation as a dogfighter, a reported kill ratio 20:1 in a 2017 Red Flag exercise suggests that this is far from the truth and against any aircraft other than the F-22, and probably the Typhoon, it would have an advantage in air-to-air combat. These kill ratio figures come amidst the ongoing criticism of the F-35’s poor thrust-to-weight ratio and overall performance figures. However, these ‘kills’ were against fourth generation fights such as the F-16 and F-15 which are claimed by the F-35’s critics to be superior dogfighters. Against a J-20 the F-35 will possess superior situational awareness providing a further advantage to its pilot. At 50% fuel the F-35 has a thrust-to-weight ratio of 1.07 which would be proximate to that of the J-20 powered by WS-15s, and superior to the J-20 if it was powered by its current lower thrust engines.
THE SHANDONG COMPARED TO THE QUEEN ELIZABETH CLASS
A comparison of the SHANDONG with the Queen Elizabeth class (QEC) carriers demonstrates that there are some similarities between the types, but more dissimilarities. Both feature ski ramps, however the SHANDONG is very much a compromise design configured for STOBAR operation of J-15 aircraft, itself derived from a land-based design which in itself is not the most optimal aircraft for carrier based operations. The QEC have a displacement of 65,000 tonnes, a length of 932 ft (284 m) and a beam of 128 ft (39 m) (waterline) and 240 ft (73 m) overall which makes them approximately the same size and weight of the SHANDONG. The QEC are able to carry an air wing of forty aircraft, the SHANDONG’s maximum complement being forty-four J-15s and helicopters.
This is a nominal figure given the configuration of the SHANDONG’s flight deck and the dimensions of the J-15, the actual figure is in all probability much less. The British carriers in comparison can carry a maximum of seventy aircraft in overload facilitated by possessing more than 19,500 m2 of flight deck as opposed to approximately 15,000 m2 for the SHANDONG.
The SHANDONG and LIAONING will share between them only twenty J-15s unless manufacture of the aircraft is restarted. Moreover, the full-width ski ramp of the Chinese carriers prevents any aircraft being parked forward as in American, French, Italian and British carriers. Forward of the island are the hold-backs and blast deflectors for two J-15s permitting launch in rapid succession, although moving more fighters forward and then flying them off the deck is considerably slowed by the inefficient launch process. As witnessed in the recent Westlant 19 deployment the single offset ski ramp on QUEEN ELIZABETH permitted aircraft to be parked forward. Moreover, the efficient operation of the Short Take-Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) F-35B from the carrier demonstrated comprehensibly the superiority of a ship designed specifically for operating this version of the Lightning.
In addition the F-35B is not a compromise design, unlike the J-15 it was designed from the outset for STOVL operations from aircraft carriers and amphibious landing ships.
The F-35B has demonstrated it can be launched from the QEC in ‘beast mode’ with a weapon load comprising two MBDA ASRAAM missiles, four Raytheon AIM-120 AAMs and four Raytheon Paveway IV guided bombs. The fuel load is unknown, but there is a high possibility that the aircraft can be launched in this configuration carrying full internal fuel depending on such factors as length of the take-off run and wind over deck. It is certainly Lockheed Martin’s intention that the F-35B can operate off a ski ramp equipped carrier at MTOW and successful tests were undertaken using the ramp at NAS Patuxent River validating the concept finishing mid 2016. Employing Short Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL) the aircraft would also have a high bring back load, but the conditions in which this technique can be used remains open to question.
At this point in time the UK has committed to buy forty-eight F-35Bs while maintain it still intends to order a total of one hundred and thirty-eight aircraft. With the projected long F-35 production run Britain can build up its numbers of aircraft over time. In contrast the J-15 is now out of production and the J-20 could prove prohibitively expensive to produce in large numbers. Taking into account all the factors a head-to-head comparison shows that the QEC and its air wing of F-35Bs is superior to China’s STOBAR aircraft carriers, with judgement reserved with respect to the Type 003.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE UNITED KINGDOM
The rapid and dramatic transition of the PLAN from a brown-water to a blue-water navy has considerable implications for the UK. China’s growth as a naval power should be seen in the context of her desire to impose hegemony inside the nine dash line, a nominal boundary within which the Chinese government wants to exercise sovereignty and control over all of the features contained within it, on the land, in the water, and on the seabed. The South China Sea occupies most of the area within this line. Chinese claims within the boundary have led to armed confrontation, notably with Vietnam and the Philippines which together which with denial of freedom of navigation (FON) signals that China is absolutely serious in pursuing its claims, legitimate or otherwise. China is also seeking to expand its economic power through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by developing infrastructure within China, across Europe, Asia, states in Eastern Africa and throughout the Indian-Pacific region.
Growing Chinese assertiveness, together with an increasingly belligerent Russia and the unresolved conflict with militant Islam means that the US, the UK and their allies could possibly be faced with multiple contiguous threats. In the worst possible scenario Western forces may be confronted by belligerent actions short of all-out war in the Baltic Sea, the South China Sea and the Strait of Hormuz. The USN would find it difficult, if not impossible, to confront major naval actions by Russia, China and a Middle-Eastern country simultaneously. At the core of any response would be a USN Carrier Battle Group (CBG) however, there would be insufficient resources available to respond to these three scenarios. In this instance the US would look to both the RN and Marine Nationale (MN – French Navy) to provide carriers to supplement or even supplant US carriers.
Given the huge technological and qualitative advances the PLAN has made, particularly over the past decade, China can no longer be regarded as an irrelevant brown-water navy. The launch and subsequent operational deployment of the LIAONING signalled that Beijing had serious aspirations to become a naval power and to match the USN in the Indian-Pacific region at least. The SHANDONG and the Type 055D destroyers are further signs of this intention. Even though the Type 003 will mark a step change in capability it cannot be ignored that the SHANDONG is the most significant factor so far in securing the future of Chinese aircraft carrier construction, and her growing naval airpower.
These realities, and given the current strategic environment, together with the UK government’s desire to project a ‘Global Britain’ post-Brexit it could do well to prepare an adequate response to protect her own assets and those of her allies, committing not only to carrier aviation but to an expanded RN. It is only by doing so that the UK will be able to keep open sea lanes and choke points which moving beyond Europe are now vital to her trade with the world.