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Update: China’s Aircraft Carriers

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on March 10th, 2009

China’s decision in mid-December 2008 to dispatch a small People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) task force of two destroyers to police against Somalia’s pirates has been greeted as a hopeful sign that China may use its growing naval capabilities positively; one Chinese commentator said it “shows the world that China is a large responsible nation.”[1]  Nevertheless, China struck a nationalist tone to its participation, refusing to join the American-led multinational naval Task Force 151, though engaging in an uneven information exchange with the U.S. side.[2]  A less benign demonstration was a far less noted December 9, 2008 incident in the East China Sea, in which two Chinese Marine Surveillance Agency ships apparently made use of the PLA’s increasingly capable space and electronic information capabilities, to calculate the precise moment when Japanese Coast Guard ships would not be present to thwart China’s latest effort to assert its sovereignty over the disputed Senkaku Islands.[3] 

Benign and Hostile: China’s December 2008 dispatch of an anti-piracy task group of two modern anti-aircraft destroyers and a new logistic support ships to Somalia (above) contrasts with China’s use of two Coast Guard ships (below) to violate Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands on December 9, 2008. Source: Chinese Internet

It was against this backdrop of confrontation and potential cooperation, in late 2008 and early 2009, that several Chinese and other sources revealed new information regarding China’s longstanding ambition to build aircraft carriers, which updates previous IASC work.[4]  It should be noted that this new information did not come from official PRC government statements or press releases, but from unattributed statements by Chinese sources to foreign or Hong Kong Chinese media, and from reports in the international defense press. As such this data is not definitive and there remains plenty of room for continued speculation.  China’s refusal to provide definitive data about major defense programs, especially future programs, is consistent with longstanding People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attitudes toward military transparency.  The latest bi-annual Chinese Defense White Paper released on January 20, 2009, makes no reference to China’s plans to build aircraft carriers. 

But these recent revelations constitute some progress nonetheless, which apparently builds upon a new official stance of defending China’s intention to build aircraft carriers to visitors, and now publically, marking a significant change from the previous longstanding policy of denying such intentions.  For example, in mid-November 2008 Major General Qian Lihua, Director of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Chinese Ministry of Defense, told the Financial Times:

“The navy of any great power...has the dream to have one or more aircraft carriers…The question is not whether you have an aircraft carrier, but what you do with your aircraft carrier….Navies of great powers with more than 10 aircraft carrier battle groups with strategic military objectives have a different purpose from countries with only one or two carriers used for offshore defence…Even if one day we have an aircraft carrier, unlike another country, we will not use it to pursue global deployment or global reach.”[5]

This promotion of aircraft carrier ambitions continued at China’s annual National People’s Congress (NPC) session in early March 2009.  While attending the NPC session, PLA Navy East Sea Fleet Commander Admiral Xu Hongmeng was quoted saying, "China really needs a carrier. Both technologically and economically, China already has the capacity to build a carrier…China will very soon have its own aircraft carrier."[6] China Daily quoted former PLA Navy political commissar Admiral Hu Yanlin saying, "Building aircraft carriers is a symbol of an important nation. It is very necessary…China has the capability to build aircraft carriers, and should do so.”[7]

New PLAN Carrier Data Points

On December 31, 2008 Japan’s Asahi Shimbun cited Chinese “military and shipbuilding sources” saying that in 2009 the PLA will start building the first of two 50,000-60,000 ton aircraft carriers expected to be launched by 2015.  They would be built in the new Shanghai shipyard on Changxingdao Island. These would apparently be in addition to the ex-Soviet/Ukrainian carrier Varyag now undergoing reconstruction and refit in Dalian Harbor.[8] Then on January 2, 2009 Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (SCMP) cited a “military source” which disclosed the PLA “may build up to four medium-sized aircraft carriers by 2020.”  This source noted they would be 65,000 ton carriers similar to the Varyag. Not to be outdone, on February 13 Asahi cites a “Chinese military source” noting that the later two carriers, also about 60,000 tons and to be produced around 2020, would be nuclear powered, based on an earlier unbuilt Russian nuclear carrier Ulyanovsk.[9]

While their details on carriers appear to track, SCMP and Asahi differ in their analysis for the purpose of China’s carrier buildup.  The SCMP quotes one Chinese source saying that “China would not be overambitious and aim for super-aircraft carriers like America's, because the PLA had no intention of becoming a global force like the United States or Russian navies.”[10] Both articles noted that China was motivated by a growing need to protect claimed maritime territories in the South China Sea and to secure resource routes to the Middle East, with the SCMP article stating bluntly, “We plan to build four battle groups simply because we need an all-weather navy force to safeguard our energy routes on the high seas as well as to protect our territorial waters in the South China Sea.”  However, in its February 13 article the usually liberal Asahi offers a more ominous rationale:

“The Chinese military's future goal is to secure naval supremacy in the western Pacific waters inside the second line of defense from the Japanese archipelago to Guam Island and Indonesia. After that, the Chinese military will vie with the U.S. naval forces in the Indian Ocean and in the entire Pacific region.”

The SCMP article also noted that the carriers would reside in bases of the East Sea and South Sea Fleets.  China is now in the process of building a new large naval base near the resort town of Sanya, on Hainan Island.  It is judged large enough to service more than one carrier battle group and also contains a new underground facility for submarines.[11]

Varyag Progress: Revealed in December 2008, a large hole in the forward flight deck indicates the removal of a battery for long-range anti-ship missiles. Is this move related to the ship’s engines, or just an effort to extend the aircraft hangar space? Source: Chinese Internet

To these unidentified Chinese source accounts, which have been uncharacteristically forthright, must be added data relayed to U.S. visitors, both official and private.  In May 2007 Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Timothy Keating had an oblique conversation with PLA counterparts after which he commented, “I do not have any better idea as to China’s intentions to develop, or not, a carrier program, but we had a very pleasant and candid exchange about the larger issues attendant to a carrier program.”  In 2007 the author also heard two different accounts from former senior U.S. officials who had been told by Chinese Navy officials of their intentions to build aircraft carriers.  One of these officials was told during a mid-2007 visit that China could build up to four to six carriers.

Unnamed officials noted to both the Asahi Shimbun and SCMP that Russian and Ukrainian technology would be used to assist the completion of their indigenous aircraft carriers. Asahi reported on February 13 that China had obtained the plans for the Ulyanovsk, a Project 1153 nuclear powered aircraft carrier which Russia started but never completed.  With a full load displacement of 78,000 tons, the Project 1153 could carry about 60+ combat aircraft and helicopters.  Of great significance, it was designed to launch conventional take-off (CTOL) aircraft carrier with steam-powered catapults.  Had the Soviet era continued, the Ulyanovsk might have carried a mix of Sukhoi Su-33 and Mikoyan MiG-29K fighters, and Su-25 attack fighters.  But it may also have carried a range of support aircraft like the Yakovlev Yak-44E AWACS platform and Beriev P42 anti-submarine warfare aircraft.  Russia may yet revive these programs, offering co-development or sales opportunities to China.

Ulyanovsk: This unbuilt Soviet-era nuclear-powered CTOL carrier design could be guiding the design of China’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Source: Internet

It has been reported that Chinese officials have had contact with Russian carrier designers and component producers.  In 2007 Russian officials disclosed their intention to build up to four new carriers, which if realized, would provide greater incentive for Russian industry to seek further investment and profits by aiding China’s carrier programs.[12]  Russia’s carrier will be 60,000 tons and nuclear powered.[13]  For China, Russia’s carrier program could be a source of technology for nuclear powered engines, aircraft catapults, advanced radar and new long-range surface-to-air missiles. China has also benefitted from the purchase of two former Soviet Kiev class aircraft-carrying anti-submarine cruisers, both converted into museums, and the Soviet-designed Kuznetzov class ski-jump equipped carrier now being refurbished in Dalian Harbor. 

The Ukraine has sold China a left-over Sukhoi T-10K prototype that led to the Su-33 carrier fighter, has offered to help train Chinese carrier pilots at the Saki naval training station built by the Soviets, and of course, sold China the Varyag.

The main question regarding the Varyag pertains to its engines.  Its boiler steam-turbine engines were reportedly incomplete or damaged when China took delivery in 2002.  Would repairs be sufficient or must they be entirely replaced?  China has been developing large naval gas turbine engines in parallel with its new advanced fighter turbofan programs.  Internet imagery from December 2008 shows that the Varyag’s fore-hull and vertically-mounted long-range anti-ship missile housing has been removed.   Was this move be related to the engine issue, or an effort replace Russian missiles with Chinese, or an effort to extend the aircraft hanger space?  If the later, aircraft capacity might be increased by up to a third, or from 22 to 28-30 Sukhoi Su-33 size fighters. A 2003 model of a modified Varyag built to honor the 50th anniversary of the Harbin Institute of Technology showed it equipped with phased array radar, plus long-range C-602 anti-ship missiles and the HHQ-9 surface-to-air missiles seen on the No. 171 Luyang-II class destroyers, placed on hull-side mounts. 

However, it must be stressed that absent official statements, which must be reviewed closely as well, much about China’s future carriers remains unknown.  Questions remain about the ultimate number, size, and configuration: conventional, nuclear powered, and ski-jump or catapult launch?  But there is evidence from Chinese military-technical literature of considerable carrier-related research, to include research concerning automatic carrier landing technologies.[14]  One question that is most likely settled, assuming continued requisite political and financial support, is that China will be building a carrier navy.

PLAN Carrier Air Wing Update

Also unknown is the ultimate configuration of China’s carrier air wing. However, it is known that China is pursuing the purchase of Russian Sukhoi Su-33 carrier fighters, as it also seeks to develop one or more types of indigenous carrier fighter, AWACs and other support aircraft.  Additional possible programs could result in short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) combat aircraft and carrier-based unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs).

Su-33 Sale Reviving?: In late 2008 Russian sources indicated that China was closing in on a decision to purchase existing and advanced versions of the Su-33 for its future carrier force. Source: RD Fisher

During the August 2005 Moscow Airshow Russian industry sources told the author that China was very interested in purchasing Su-33 fighters, and during that show visiting Chinese officials received a demonstration of the twin-seat Su-33UB fighter, which has recently been modified with thrust-vectoring engines.  After this show into 2006 there appeared several articles reporting that China was seeking to purchase anywhere from 2 to 100 Su-33s.  The authoritative Piotr Butowski reported that China was interested in purchasing up to 60 single seat Su-33s and 40 twin-seat Su-33UBs.[15]  However, coincident with rising Russian anxiety over China’s penchant for copying Russian technology, plus declining Chinese weapons purchases, there were fewer reports on the Su-33 deal in 2007 and 2008, raising concerns the deal had stalled. 

Su-33UB: Seen flying at the 2005 Moscow Airshow (top), the twin-seat Su-33UB has also been proposed to perform AWACS missions with retractable phased-array radar (bottom). Source: RD Fisher and Internet

However in late 2008 it appears that this deal was again becoming active.  At the November 2008 Zhuhai Airshow Russian officials noted that China was interested in purchasing the new Sukhoi Su-35 and Su-33 fighters.[16]  One report, however, noted that Chinese interest in the Su-33 was “soft.”  Then at the end of October 2008, citing Russian industry sources, Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that the PLAN was “close to reaching a decision on the procurement of aircraft for its aircraft carrier programme.” These sources told Jane’s that China was considering a near term purchase of about 14 current-configuration Su-33s in order to speed delivery.  This would be followed by the purchase of 35 to 50 of a new advanced Su-33 variant, to be developed as the first batch was being produced.[17]  But for this deal to succeed China would have to agree to fund the revival of production of a fighter last built in the early 1990s, as well as fund the development of an advanced version, costs which China has usually sought to avoid.[18] 

Su-33’s next weapons?: It is possible that the PLAN’s new advanced version Su-33 carrier fighters could be armed with the 300+km range Novator “AAM” and 3M-54 long-range antis-ship missile, which would convey considerable advantages in many scenarios. Source: Russian Internet

But it is the upgrades that will go into the new Su-33 version, sometimes called the Su-33M (Modified) or Su-33K (Kitaiski or China) which should interest the U.S. and other navies.  Most reports are in agreement that this Su-33 version will use new electronic and weapon systems enabling a greater level of capability than the PLA Navy’s current Su-30MKK2 land-based fighter bombers.  For example, these next Su-33s may have a new Russian active or passive phased array radar.  The Russian Phazotron and Tikomirov radar concerns are both developing active arrays, while the later has very capable passive arrays.  Furthermore, the new Su-33 could carry the new 300+km range Novator “AAM” and the 300km range Novator 3M-54AE subsonic/supersonic anti-ship missile.  This could conceivably give the PLAN’s first major carrier combat aircraft a radar system comparable to the Raytheon AN/APG-79 active phased array radar now equipping current production U.S. Navy Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and weapons that handily outrange those currently carried by the F/A-18E/F.  Should the PLAN also opt for more powerful engines and thrust-vectoring for their Su-33s, they would also possess far greater maneuverability than the U.S. fighter, useful for dominating some close-in engagements or for avoiding missile interception.  The long-range Novator AAM could pose a particular threat to U.S. AWACS, ELINT, refueling and naval maritime patrol which are critical to the “network” which gives U.S. Navy and Air Force combat aircraft superior combat awareness and persistence.  There are also reports that Russia is considering basing an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon on this long-range AAM.[19] 


It should also be considered that a successful Su-33 deal may lead to PLAN interest in a potential successor carrier fighter which may be based on Sukhoi’s new 5th generation fighter being developed for Russia “PAK-FA” program.  While a prototype could fly in 2009 or 2010, very little is known about this new fighter program, though there is considerable speculation that it will feature stealth shaping, internal weapon carriage, and eventually, a new active phased array radar and new high thrust-to-weight engines that enable supercruising, or supersonic speeds without resort to fuel-gulping afterburners.  Possible Russian interest in a navalized 5th generation fighter was noted at the November 2007 Dubai Airshow, when a Russian aircraft company official told the author that if Russia builds new aircraft carriers, it is logical that it should build a new carrier fighter.  But in late Feburary 2009 a Russian official noted their future new carriers will feature a 5th generation fighter plus new unmanned and combat support aircraft.[20]

Indigenous Carrier Aircraft Update

The PLA may also have two or maybe three indigenous conventional take-off carrier combat aircraft programs.  One may be a carrier capable version of the Chengdu J-10, a program first reported by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence in the mid 1990s.  At the time ONI projected Chengdu would be build a twin-engine version of this fighter.  While from time to time reports appear on the Chinese Internet of a twin-engine “J-10C,” there is insufficient data to confirm such a program.  However, since 2005, when first suggested to this analyst by Russian sources, there has been consistent reporting on an upgraded J-10 with a thrust-vectored AL-31FN engine,[21] and perhaps more advanced electronics.  As was explained, thrust vectoring would allow the forward-stabilizer or “canard” J-10 to achieve lower landing speeds required for carrier operations.  This feature would also enable shorter take-offs with useful payloads from short high-altitude airstrips near India.  However, Chengdu has not revealed this J-10 version. 

One or even two conventional take-off carrier fighter programs may exist at the Shenyang Aircraft Company.  Originally it was thought that Shenyang was trying to develop a carrier-capable version of the J-11B, a highly modified version of the co-produced Sukhoi Su-27, or J-11.  Much to Sukhoi’s and the Russian government’s dismay, the J-11B program, and a twin seat J-11BS, were proceeding without gaining Sukhoi’s permission or paying royalties.  China’s reported purchase of a T-10K has led to speculation that China was also trying to modify the J-11 to be carrier capable.  However, Russian sources have told this analyst and others that China would face considerable difficulty in doing so, as the Su-33 had to be extensively modified in order to survive the stresses of carrier operations.  Nevertheless, a successful carrier capable J-11B would likely be equipped with radar and weapons which would also make it competitive with the F/A-18E/F.  

J-13 Possibilities: It is suggested that Shenyang may be developing its own carrier fighter either in addition to, or in lieu of pursuing its own carrier capable J-11B/Su-33 fighter. One illustration, likely from a Chinese aerospace journal (top), and another from a CCTV program outtake of the Dalian Naval Academy, illustrate two possible configurations for this fighter. Source: Chinese Internet and CCTV

Another possibility which has been suggested is that in addition to, or instead of a carrier capable J-11B, Shenyang  and its associated 601 Institute for aero design may be developing a new carrier capable fighter, referred to by the respected China Military Aviation web site as the “J-13,” that it reports may be developed within five years.[22]  One potential illustration of this fighter, likely from a Chinese aerospace engineering journal, suggests it may be a stealth-featured twin-engine fighter between the size of a J-11 and the Russian MiG-29 fighter.  A second illustration, taken from a CCTV story featuring a video flight training program used by students at the Dalian Naval Academy, shows a slightly smaller twin-engine fighter similar in size to the Boeing F-18C.  This analyst has found no additional data to confirm either of these programs.  However, China’s aviation sector has made considerable progress with indigenously designed aircraft electronics, engines and stealth technology to support such a program with some foreign inputs.  Both Chengdu and Shenyang are also focused on new 5th generation combat aircraft designs which may be realized in the next decade, to include eventual carrier capable variants. 

Chengdu or Yakovlev JSF

China has also had an interest in acquiring vertical or short take-off (V/STOL) fighters that dates back to at least the late 1970s, when China first tried to purchase British Harrier fighters.[23]  China actually did acquire one retired engine-less Royal Air Force Harrier GR3 earlier this decade, reportedly in a swap with a Western antique aircraft collector.  It resides in the museum of Beihang University, formerly the Beijing Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (BUAA),[24] where many of its design aspects have likely been absorbed by its engineers and students who routinely perform research for the PLA.  

Harrier In China: This example of a British Harrier GR3 resides the museum of Beihang University in Beijing, where it has likely been studied by its aerospace engineering professors and students. Source: Ordinance Knowledge magazine

In addition, in the early 1990s Russia’s Yakovlev tried to market to China its Yak-41,[25] a supersonic successor to the subsonic V/STOL Yak-38, the first Soviet fixed wing carrier fighter.  However, this program was at a tentative early stage and Yak had tried unsuccessfully to interest a “foreign partner,” likely China, in funding remaining development, and the Yak-41 soon lost Russian government funding as well.  The Yak-41 could not take off vertically without using afterburners, which would damage flight decks.[26] Also, noise and structural weakness of the fixed vertical-lift turbojet engines behind the cockpit were a hazard to the pilot.[27]  The cost of completing this program, compared to the ready availability other Russian combat aircraft like the Sukhoi Su-27, likely contributed to China’s decision not to purchase the Yak-41, which has since hobbled Yakovlev’s efforts to revive its fighter business. 

While it would be a tremendously difficult and expensive undertaking, there are indications that the PLA remains interested in vertical take-off fighters.  In early 2005 the author was told by a Chinese source that the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation was considering the development of a design similar to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).  The F-35 is to be built in conventional (F-35A, C) and short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL, F-35B) versions.  But there has been no subsequent reporting on whether Chengdu has commenced such a program.  Then at the end of 2008 a report appeared in the Hong Kong media, noting that during his late October 2008 visit to China, Russian Premier Vladimir Putin discussed the revival of the sale of the Yak-41 to China.[28]  So far this report remains unconfirmed and when queried at the recent IDEX arms show in Abu Dhabi in late February 2009, Russian officials could offer no confirmation as well. 

Nevertheless, the potential for future Russia-China cooperation regarding VSTOL or STOVL aircraft deserves to be monitored.  Russia would benefit from reviving Yakovlev’s fighter business, especially if it could to offer a less expensive lighter-weight 5th generation fighter to compliment Russia’s more expensive “PAK-FA” program and compete with the F-35. The irony is that during the mid-1990s Lockheed Martin purchased advice from Yakovlev for its successful X-35 JSF candidate—which uses the same thrust-vector swivel-nozzle engine tailpipe concept as developed for the Yak-41.

Advanced Yak-41 concept and F-35 compared: This comparison from a Chinese web page suggests an advanced development concept for the Yak-41 and the Lockheed-Martin F-35 are of similar size. Source: Chinese Internet

Despite its exit from the fighter business in the early 1990s, it is likely that Yakovlev is eager to revive its fighter fortunes.  In the late 1980s Yak at least explored the development of an advanced Yak-41, which featured more powerful engines, greater fuel capacity, revised wing and fuselage features and better radar and combat systems.  This version was reportedly going to be capable of a 900km radius with a 2,000kg payload.[29]  Yak is also reported to have developed plans for a modified version of the Yak-41 to meet an early-1990s competition for a Light Fighter, a program that was not successful.  There are also indications that Yak sought to design a stealthy version of the Yak-41 to compete for Russia’s 5th generation fighter precursor program, “PAK-FA,” which was won by Sukhoi.  Yakovlev also reportedly designed an even more powerful STOVL fighter called the Yak-43.  While reports are cryptic, the Yak-43 was supposedly designed around a version of the large (55,000lb thrust) Kuznetsov NK-32 turbofan designed for the Tupolev Tu-160 large supersonic bomber.[30]  It would have used thrust vectoring from a single engine, harkening back to the earlier Yak-36 design, instead of forward-fuselage lift-engines like the Yak-41.  Another report notes that it would have featured a large tail-less delta wing design,[31] perhaps reminiscent of Boeing’s unsuccessful X-32 JSF contender.

Stealthier Yak STOVL: This is one artist’s conception for a stealthier development of the Yak-41, which may be closer to a reported, though not confirmed, proposal for Russian-Chinese co-development. Source: Internet

Should Chengdu’s ambition be realized, a potential “F-35” class fighter would likely enter PLA service in both conventional and STOVL versions, the latter version being deployable to a larger number of naval platforms and for use from small hill-top airbases in Tibet or near India.  The PLAN reportedly intends to build up to six new Type 081 flat-deck landing-helicopter-dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships,[32] which could be designed to carry a small number of Chinese “F-35s.”  It is instructive that South Korea is considering the F-35B for its new LHD class ships,[33] which may lead Japan to follow suit. In the 1980s Russian ship design bureaus also produced concepts for small fast carriers designed for the Yak-41 and Kamov naval helicopters, another concept that the PLAN could consider.   A smaller carrier would be attractive for cooperating with attack submarines and land-based aircraft to defend operating zones for new PLAN SSBNs operating in deep waters south of Hainan Islands, or perhaps in the future, east of Taiwan.  This would allow larger PLAN aircraft carriers to undertake more distant missions. 

Soviet Yak-Carrier Concept: This novel small fast catamaran carrier intended to carry Yak-41 fighters would have fit well into late Soviet-era pro-SSBN naval doctrines, and as it is now designing catamaran combatants, this concept may yet prove attractive to PLAN planners. Source: Russian Internet

Possible Hongdu Carrier Trainer

A robust training aircraft is an absolute necessity for developing the piloting skill set required for the harsh environment of carrier operations.  Usually, this requirement is fulfilled by a lighter twin-seat aircraft that is easier to fly and less expensive to operate, or lose in the event of an accident.  Since 1992 the U.S. Navy has employed the Boeing T-45 Goshhawk, a highly modified version of the popular BAE Systems Hawk trainer.  Carrier pilots from France and India receive training on U.S. Navy T-45s.  The Russian Navy uses the Sukhoi Su-25UTG, a modified version of the twin-seat Su-25UT ground-attack jet trainer.  Only about ten were produced in the late 1980s.  Russia’s Yakovlev has proposed a carrier capable version of it new Yak-130 twin-turbofan advanced training aircraft, but so far Russia has not funded its development. 

Hongdu L-15 Trainer: This twin-engine supersonic lead-in fighter training aircraft was developed with the help of Russia’s Yakovlev bureau is a good candidate to be developed into a carrier trainer. Source: RD Fisher

The PLAN has the option to try to revive production of the Su-25UGT, fund development of the naval Yak-130, or undertake a more likely alternative, develop an indigenous carrier trainer.  The most likely result is that the PLAN will obtain the best of the last two alternatives in the form of a carrier capable version of the new Hongdu L-15 training aircraft.  Developed early this decade with the help of the Yakovlev bureau, it closely resembles the Yak-130 but is powered by Ukrainian AI-222 afterburning turbofans and is capable of supersonic speeds. Rather than being based on an older fighter design, as are many trainers, the L-15 was purpose-designed to support lead-in training for modern 4+ generation fighters, utilizing advanced cockpit controls and in-flight simulation systems.  One Chinese commentator has noted that the L-15’s twin engines and fly-by-wire computer controls allow for greater coordination between flight controls and engines, all of which improve safety margins for carrier operations.[34]  Another Chinese commentary adds caution noting that extensive redesign of the airframe and engines are necessary to make the L-15 suitable for carrier operations.[35]  But Hongdu has options, such as the purchase of Yakovlev’s design consulting.  Another potential option was offered in January 2008 by the Ukraine’s Defense Minister, who offered to co-produce the L-15 with China.[36] At the 2008 Singapore Airshow a Chinese official offered that Hongdu may be developing a single-seat light-attack version of the L-15 as a company initiative.  Such a variant might also be offered in a naval carrier capable version.

Possible Light-Attack L-15 Variant: This concept for a single light-attack version of the L-15 appeared in the January 2008 issue of the Chinese magazine Shipborne Weapons. Source: Shipborne Weapons

Carrier Capable Unmanned Combat Aircraft

As are the United States, Europe and Russia, China too is developing advanced unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs).  At the 2008 Zhuhai Airshow the AVIC 1 consortium unveiled its “Warrior Eagle” subsonic forward-swept wing UCAV concept, which appears to be similar in size and performance to other UCAVs under development like the European Neuron, British Taranis, Russian MiG Skat (Skate), and the U.S. Northrop-Grumman X-47B.  So far only the latter is being designed for aircraft carrier operations, but it is likely that the others will at least examine the option of building carrier capable UCAVs, inasmuch as they have or are soon to build new aircraft carriers. PLA planners are likely very familiar with evolution of U.S. and European UAVs and UCAVs, and see how the U.S. Navy plans to use the X-47B to obtain a long-range strike and surveillance capability lost with the demise of the A-6 and A-12 attack aircraft programs.  Chinese military technical literature also indicates that the PLA has considered maritime missions for UAVs such as defending against and assisting attacks by anti-ship cruise missiles, which could also be performed by carrier-based UAVs.[37] 

Northrop-Grumman X-47B: This first U.S. Navy carrier-based UCAV could enter service by the end of the next decade, but with sufficient commitment the PLA could develop similar naval UCAVs in about the same time frame. Source: RD Fisher

China’s UAV design and production sector has made rapid advances in the last decade, using a vibrant research and development community resident in its aerospace universities, which has also fed new design capabilities in many Chinese companies, exploiting advances in miniaturized computer controls, advanced materials, satellite navigation systems, advanced electro-optics, miniaturized radar and precision weaponry, to develop a range of high performance UAV and UCAV platforms.[38]  China’s interest in automatic carrier landing technologies, plus its development of a global “Compass” PLA-controlled navigation satellite network, may contribute to eventual PLA Navy carrier-based UCAVs. 

Potential first PLA Naval UCAV: The recently revealed “Warrior Eagle,” a likely program of the Shenyang Aircraft Co., is well positioned to become the basis for an early PLA Navy carrier UCAV platform. Source: Anonymous

At this point it is possible to speculate that China has two options for a potential carrier-based UCAV.  The first might be a development of the “Warrior Eagle” concept, which is likely a product of the Shenyang Aircraft Company.  As such it would benefit from Shenyang’s investment in manned carrier fighter development.   This subsonic design, which could be modified to have a straight or swept-back wing, could be equipped to perform a range of missions from initial attack, aerial refueling, electronic and radar surveillance or even anti-submarine missions, which are also planned for the X-47B.  Hongdu’s L-15 offers a second UCAV option, inasmuch as Hongdu could again benefit from Yakovlev’s intention to develop a family of UAV/UCAV platforms from its Yak-130 platform.  Given the PLA’s impressive investment in a large array of unmanned combat systems, it is not inconceivable that the PLA could deploy a carrier-capable UCAV by the end of the next decade or in the early 2020s, about the same time the X-47B is expected to enter U.S. Navy service. 


China’s December 2008 naval deployment to the Gulf of Aden serves to preview an emerging political consensus in Beijing to build a much larger navy to defend China’s ever more distant strategic and economic interests.   Revelations of the last two years indicate that China’s preparations to build such a larger navy are well underway.  Despite years of official denials, which have only recently started to change, China has been acting to fulfill a longstanding ambition of PLA Navy leaders, an ambition that is apparently increasingly embraced by the Party-PLA elite, to build new naval forces capable of aircraft and amphibious power projection.  However, the ultimate size and configuration of this future naval force have yet to be revealed at an official level.  There is a difference in the regional and distant strategic and foreign policy objectives which can be asserted with two carrier battle groups versus six or eight, with attendant amphibious assault groups plus submarine and surface escort ships.  However, given Russia’s ongoing and potentially greater assistance for China’s carriers, and their growing military cooperation under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it is necessary for the U.S. to consider possible combined Russian and Chinese carrier formations.  But even one PLAN carrier group, if unchallenged by opposing naval forces, could sway a future crisis in China’s favor. 

China’s principle strategic mission for its carrier forces will also go far to determine their size and configuration.   It is not yet clear whether China carrier force development will be driven by a dominant Soviet-style SSBN-support mission or by a U.S.-style power projection mission.  The former mission preference would be justified inasmuch as China’s geographic impediments require active protection for SSBNs, also the key motivation for carrier development in the late Soviet period.  Furthermore, in a manner similar to the Soviets, China is now assembling an impressive “anti-access” layered phalanx of space surveillance, space warfare, long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles, long-range cruise missiles launched by aircraft, ships and submarines, plus a growing fleet of modern submarines and an already very large inventory of deep sea mines.  Carrier battle groups would help the PLA to more intensively defend or to dominate chosen areas within this larger dome of space-land-sea systems.  Being able to depend on such a range of supporting capabilities, as was also the Soviet experience, also helps to justify the building of less complex/expensive non-catapult carriers. 

ASBMs, Good for the Goose... China’s development of land-based, and potentially future sea based anti-ship ballistic missiles will serve as a force-multiplier for deployed PLAN carrier groups. The U.S. Navy should consider this capability as China deploys its carrier navy. Source: Chinese Internet

However, it should also be considered that China does not need to build large U.S.-style catapult carriers to fulfill a range of power projection missions.  By using its growing space information complex and deploying complementary ground based long-range radar and electronic intelligence systems to client states, think of Iran, it is possible for the PLA to consider deploying sea-based versions of its long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles to support deployed carrier groups.  Advances in PLAN ship based radar could also support the deployment of anti-aircraft missiles also capable of taking out low Earth orbit satellites. By deterring U.S. carrier and other naval formations, or rendering them ineffective, the PLAN carrier group’s freedom of maneuver is greatly enhanced, potentially reducing the requirement for very long-range strike aircraft.  However, reports that the PLAN favors nuclear powered carriers to be built later in the next decade raises the prospect that China will also develop new generations of more capable carrier combat aircraft and naval escorts. 

It is also appropriate to consider whether China can successfully assemble this very narrow, but complex and significant element of global power status, given its many other similarly expensive military power ambitions, and the range of economic and social-political disasters that could befall the Chinese Communist Party leadership.  The PLA’s plans for manned Moon presence, space station, space warfare, large transport aircraft, 5th generation combat aircraft and a rapidly deployable info-mechanized Army, in addition to the assemblage of a carrier navy, could require real annual military expenditures that could reach into the hundreds of billions of dollars.  Yet, the recent slight Chinese economic downturn spurred by the U.S. recessionary trend, is already stoking fears of significant social unrest in China, highlighting again the fundamental contradictions between CCP’s requirement to sustain economic growth, while maintaining a political dictatorship committed to amassing new levels of military power.

However, U.S. policy makers and America’s allies and friends cannot depend on China’s Communist Party reaching their version of a Soviet political-economic cliff.  For the U.S. Navy in particular, the looming reality of an emerging Chinese carrier-based navy, combined with China’s just as rapid assemblage of a unique “anti-access” phalanx, creates contradictory and expensive challenges.  The U.S. will be pressed to maintain or increase its carrier forces, develop far more capable combat aircraft for its carriers, while at the same time being pressed to more rapidly develops missile, railgun or laser systems that can defeat ASBMs (or all three), while also considering whether to distribute carrier air wing capabilities to more survivable smaller carriers, or even to new underwater air-strike platforms. 

Peace Dividend Expires

For the nearterm, this means coming to grips with the reality that U.S. Navy has spent the 1990s “peace-dividend” compromises that led to decisions to drop expensive aircraft programs like the McDonnell Douglas A-12 stealth attacker and the F-22N/Naval Advanced Tactical Fighter, resulting in the affordable F/A-18E/F multirole fighter.  When compared to the potential capabilities of a Su-33 equipped with an active phased array radar and 300+km range AAMs, the Super Hornet cannot guarantee commanding superiority.  This gap will grow larger should the PLA opt to purchase an expected naval version of Russia’s 5th generation fighter, or if China succeeds in developing its own 5th generation carrier combat aircraft.  The stealthy Lockheed Martin F-35C naval strike fighter would require a considerable redesign in order regain superiority over these potential threats, but it is at least an available option.  Another option might be to rapidly modify the U.S. Air Force version of the Lockheed Martin F-22 for carrier use, which would give the U.S. carrier air wing a decisive edge.[39]  Long range UCAV programs like the X-47B also become more necessary, as is the requirement to move UCAVs to a larger number of ship and submarine platforms. There is also cause for the U.S. Navy to invest in its own ASBM capability, which could be realized rapidly by modifying long-range anti-missile interceptors, and exploiting the already impressive U.S. space surveillance architecture. 

Peace Dividend Victim: The short-lived Naval Advanced Tactical Fighter (NATF, 1988-1991) program might have resulted in a navalized version of the F-22 5th generation fighter. If continued, it might only be entering service today, but would have ensured the viability of the U.S. carrier air wing as new Russian and Chinese carrier fighters threaten to match or exceed the capabilities of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

For U.S. allies and friends the emergence of the PLA’s carrier and anti-carrier forces creates similar pressures.  Japan will be pressed not just to build its own conventional aircraft carriers, but also to increase its submarine forces and consider its own ASBMs as well.  South Korea apparently is already considering adding F-35 to its LHDs, which could lead to its building larger aircraft carriers.  A recent Australian study considers the cost of acquiring two 65,000 ton British Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers with 36 F-35s each, in order to position Australia as a “muscular regional power.”[40]  Others like Taiwan may have little choice but to respond asymmetrically.  This could mean an increasing justification for Taipei’s longstanding quest for new conventional submarines, and for its effort to build a small force of land-attack cruise missiles.  Both programs lost support in Washington during the last years of the Bush Administration due to in part to intensive Chinese pressure.  China’s emerging carrier and anti-carrier forces may require that Washington also support these new capabilities for its allies and friends not just to sustain deterrence of China, but also to increase potential support for U.S. naval forces operating in the Western Pacific.

[1] Li Daguang, National Defense University, “Sending Troops To Fight Pirates Can Test Chinese Navy's Overseas Capabilities,” Beijing Huanqiu Wang Online, December 23, 2008.

[2] The U.S. has provided updates to the Chinese side of future Task Force activities, while the Chinese only report on past actions to the U.S. side, see, “Navy sharing anti-piracy data with Chinese despite refusal to join U.S.-led allied task force,” East-Asia Intel.Com, January 23, 2009,

[3] One Chinese report noted that the Chinese side knew that Japanese Coast Guard ships were in a “shift change” in part due to their shipboard electronic equipment, and the ability to receive offboard data, see, “PRC Paper Reports Ships Breaking Through Japan’s Diayou Islands Defense Line,” Guoji Xianqu Daobao, December 20, 2008. This incident resulted in a protest by Japan’s Prime Minister to Chinese leaders at the December 12, 2008 China-Japan-South Korea summit.

[4] Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “2005: Turning Point For China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions,” International Assessment and Strategy Center Web Page, January 8, 2006,

[5] Mure Dickie and Martin Dickson, “China hints at aircraft carrier project,” Financial Times, November 16, 2008,

[6] Christopher Bodeen, “Speculation grows on Chinese aircraft carrier plans,” Associated Press, March 6, 2009.

[7] Bao Daozu, “Chinese Military Deputies urge building of aircraft carriers ,” China Daily, March 6, 2009,

[8] Kenji Minemura, “China to start construction of 1st aircraft carriers next year, Asahi Shimbun, December 31, 2008,

[9] Kenji Minemura, “China to build two flattops,” Asahi Shimbun, February 13, 2009.

[10] Minnie Chan, “Pla Said To Eye Four Carriers,” South China Morning Post, January 2, 2009.

[11] For a review of this base supported by satellite imagery, see Richard D. Fisher Jr. “China’s new nuclear naval base revealed,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 2008, pgs. 50-53.

[12] See Andrei Chang, “Three navies building aircraft carriers,” UPI, December 12, 2008.

[13] Gerrard Cowan, “Senior official outlines basic specifications of Russia’s future aircraft carrier,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, March 2, 2009.

[14] These articles indicating Chinese research of aircraft carrier technologies were listed on Chinese web search engines: Automatic Carrier Landing: Gao Qing Wei, Guo-Rong Zhao and Liu Tao, “Carrier-based aircraft integrated electronic display and automatic landing guidance system simulation,” Journal of the Navy Aeronautical Engineering Institute, No. 4, 2005; Dai Shi Jun, Yang Yi Dong, Yu Yong, Shi-jun and Yu Yong, “Thrust Integrated Control Using H ∞ Syntheses In Automatic Carrier Landing System,” Journal of Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, No. 1, 2002; Cao Dong, Yang Yi-dong 1, Yu Yong and Fan Yan-ming, “Automatic Carrier Landing System with Gust-rejection Capability,” Harbin Industry University Journal, No. 2, 2004; Guo Dong, and Lin Yan, “Reduced-order H ∞ Controller Design of a Longitudinal Automatic Carrier Landing System,” Information and Electronic Engineering, No. 5, 2006; Carrier Aircraft Arresting Issues: Hu Meng, “Arresting Dynamics Research of Carrier Aircraft,” Journal of the Air Force Engineering University, No. 5, 2000; Zhou Hao, Zhang Zhi Wei, Song Jin Chun, Cao Chu Hua, “Arresting Performances Simulation Research on Aircraft Arresting System,” Aviation technology, No. 3, 2002; Sheng Xian Ho, Cao Chu Hua, Zhang Zhi Wei and Song Jin Chun, “Hydraulic System Design and Performance Simulation of Aircraft Arresting System,” Northeastern University Journal, No. 10, 2002; Song Jin Chun, Zhang Zhi Wei, Zhang Fu Bei, Song Jin Chun, and Wang Yan, “Study on the Electro-Hydraulic Proportional Controlled Aircraft Arresting System,” Aviation Journal, No. 4, 2005; Deck Motion Issues: Yang One and Yu Yong, “Deck Motion Prediction Technique Based on Kalman Filtering Theory,” Data Acquisition and Processing, No. 4, 2002; Shi Ming, Qu Xiang Ju Qu and Wang Meng Hui, “The Influence and Compensation of Deck Motion in Carrier Landing Approach,” Flight Mechanics, No. 1, 2006; Carrier Landing Control Issues: Zhang Yong and Zhang Dong Kwong, “Precision Flight Path Control for Carrier Based Aircraft Landing Approaches,” Aircraft Design, No. 1, 2006; Yang One, Shi Jun, Yu Yong and Fan Yan Ming, “The Control Scheme For Resisting Air Wake Disturbance for Carrier Landing,” Journal of the Navy Aeronautical Engineering Institute, No. 1, 2003; “Precision Flight Path Control in Carrier Landing Approach,” Flight Mechanics, No. 1, 2000; Special Features of Carrier Aircraft: Li Xing and Wang Xiao Hui, “Overview of Three-Proof Design on Carrier-Based Aircraft,” Environmental Engineering, No. 4, 2006; Wang Qian Sheng and Wang Qiansheng, “Critical Technologies in Carrier - Based Aircraft Design and Development,” Aircraft Design, No. 2, 2005; Peng You Mei, “Technical Features for Ship-board Aircraft Engine,” Gas Turbine Test and Study, No. 2, 2005; Carrier Deck Coatings: Zheng Dong Jin, “Development and Progress in Nonskid Coatings for Aircraft Carrier Decks,” Ship Science and Technology, No. 5, 2003.

[15] Piotr Butowski and Bernard Bombeau, “Modernized Sukhoi Su-33K for Beijing,” Air & Cosmos, December 8, 2006, pgs. 32-33

[16] “Russia Su-33 Deck Fighter Could Be Shipped To China,” Interfax-AVN, November 5, 2008; “Chinese Military Evincing Much Interest In Su-35 Fighters,” ITAR-TASS, November 6, 2008.

[17] Reuben Johnson, “Chinese navy eyes Su-33s for its aircraft carrier programme,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, October 28, 2008; also see Andrei Chang, “The Questions Su33's Export to China,” Kanwa Intelligence Review, September 10, 2008.

[18] For this reason it has also been suggested that Russia may instead offer China the MiG-29K carrier fighter now being built for India, because it is already developed and in production, see Johnson, op-cit. However, this would require that the PLAN invest in the expensive logistic and training costs to support a relatively small number of unique combat aircraft.

[19] “After Brahmos, More Collaborations?.” An IDC analysis with inputs from Sayan Majumdar, Indian Defense Consultants, April 12, 2004; Duncan Lennox, ed., “ASAT/BPI,” Jane’s Strategic Weapon Systems, January 2, 2009.

[20] Cowan, op-cit.

[21] This intention was most recently confirmed to the author by a Russian source at the November 2007 Dubai Airshow.

[22] “J-13,” China Military Aviation web site, December 30, 2008,

[23] “Summit on Cannibal Island,” Time, January 15, 1979.

[24] “Harrier in Beijing,” Binqi Zhishi (Ordinance Knowledge), March 2002, pgs. 22-44.

[25] John Fricker and Piotr Butowski, Yakovlev’s V/STOL Fighters, Leicester: Midland Publishing, 1995, p. 36; Gerald Segal, “Renew U.S. Ties With The Changing Chinese Military,” International Herald Tribune, July 18, 1992.

[26] “Yakovlev Yak-41 ‘Freestyle,”

[27] The author thanks a source close to Russian industry for this observation. The Lockheed-Martin F-35B avoids these dangers by employing a forward fuselage vertical lift fan that dispenses with the need for noise generating combustion, obtaining power from a drive-shaft connected to the main engine.

[28] This report appeared in the Oriental Daily, January 1, 2009, copied at; Russian Prime Minister Putin met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on October 28, 2008, see, “The 13th Regular Meeting between Chinese and Russian Prime Ministers Held in Russia, 2008-10-28,”

[29] Fricker and Butowski, op-cit.

[30] Fricker and Butowski, p. 39.

[31] Lt. Col. Anatoliy Artemyev, “Yakovlev VSTOL Fighters, from ‘Freehand’ to ‘Freestyle,’ International Airpower Journal, Volume 10, Autumn 2003, p. 97.

[32] Prasun K. Sengupta, ‘Spotlight on China’s LPDs. LHDs and Carriers,” Tempur, July 2008, p. 93.

[33] “S.Korea Eyes Fighter Jet for Landing Ships,” Korea Times, March 2, 2009,

[34] “Experts said the L-15 suitable for conversion to carrier based trainer,” Warsky web page mirror, December 14, 2008,

[35] “L-15 ‘Falcon’ for carrier-to-ground attack?, Xinhua blog, July 9, 2008,

[36] Defense Minister: Ukraine wants to step up cooperation with China, Interfax-Ukraine, January 19, 2009,

[37] PLA interest in maritime missions for UAVs is illustrated by the following articles, viewed as abstracts on Chinese search engines: Wang Ping, Du Yiping and Song Zhiwei, (Dalian Naval Academy graduate (Wang and Song); (Du) Dalian Naval Academy Associate Professor) Carrier-based unmanned aircraft and early warning detection research,” Cruise Missile, November, 2005; Wang Hong-jun and Li Da-yong, (Dalian Naval Academy), “UAV in the fight against anti-ship cruise missiles,” Ship Science and Technology, May, 2004; Wu Peng and Wang Tian, “Anti-ship missile and UAV Cooperative Engagement Capability Study,” Cruise Missile, June, 2006; Li Dayong and Yeqiong Long, “Application of unmanned aircraft to naval electronic warfare,” Electronic Warfare Technologies, January 2004.

[38] See author’s “Maritime Employment of PLA Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” paper delivered for the U.S. Naval War College’s “Evolving Maritime Roles for Chinese Aerospace Power,” Naval War College, 10-11 December 2008, for a forthcoming volume.

[39] This option is explored by WGCDR Chris Mills and Peter Goon, “Navalizing the F-22 Raptor, Restoring America’s Maritime Air Dominance,” Air Power Australia Web Page, February 23, 2009,

[40] Dr. Andrew Davies, “Pay your money and take your pick, force structure options and their cost,” Strategic Insight (Australian Strategic Policy Institute), December 16, 2008,

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