Zhang Zheng, China’s Carrier Commander Interviewed

On 25SEP12, China’s state-run TV station, CCTV, broadcast an exclusive interview with the Liaoning’s commander, Zhang Zheng. Here’s an excerpt from what he had to say on the country’s future naval doctrine:

I can tell you there are three things that I think are quite important: firstly, the integration of naval aviation and surface combatants — we need to establish some new kind of specialists. We have to train them and make them effective. Secondly, I think it’s quite important also to set up new safety procedures, since as you know the flight deck is … small compared to airfields on land. … Finally, I think the management of this ship is also very important … We don’t have enough experience running this type of ship. That’s why I think administration — the structure and the principles — should be modified.

The full interview can be viewed here.

Shortly thereafter the Diplomat ran  a short piece by Jame’s Holmes on the Top 5 reasons why the Liaoning is outclassed by its American counterparts:

5. No air wing. At first blush this seems like the main hurdle to an effective carrier task force. The air wing constitutes a carrier’s “main battery,” or offensive punch, not to mention a major element of the fleet’s defense against aerial, surface, or subsurface attack. But the PLA Navy now possesses a working flattop and, apparently, combat aircraft capable of operating from its flight deck. The rest is a matter of doctrinal development and sheer practice for aircrews. These are soluble problems given ample time, resolve, and patience. Indeed, training will be the Liaoning’s chief function for the foreseeable future.

4. Size. The Liaoning displaces about two-thirds the tonnage of an American CVN. Its air wing is commensurately smaller. Built by the Soviet Union, it was designed to accommodate 28 fighter/attack aircraft, a fraction of the U.S. complement. A one-on-one shootout between theLiaoning and a U.S. flattop, then, would be no contest.

3. Non-nuclear propulsion. Naval nuclear propulsion isn’t everything, but it does comprise a commanding advantage. U.S. CVNs are swifter, boast virtually unlimited cruising range, and steam for years without refueling. They do need to take on jet fuel every few days to conduct regular flight operations; their aircraft aren’t nuclear-powered. Still, reducing the logistical burden translates into greater tactical and operational flexibility for commanders.

2. Escorts and combat logistics. Carriers steam in company with a coterie of escorts and support vessels. The PLA Navy, however, has not yet filled out the remainder of a carrier task force. The navy’s newest guided-missile destroyers appear adequate for air-defense purposes, but anti-submarine warfare remains a puzzling shortfall—particularly since China’s likely adversaries, the United States and Japan, excel at undersea operations. Combat logistics—oilers, ammunition ships, refrigerated stores ships—remains another glaring shortcoming for the PLA Navy. These unglamorous but crucial vessels can replenish men-of-war, allowing them to stay at sea for long intervals without returning to port. Chinese task forces will remain vulnerable and tethered to shore logistical support until shipbuilders plug these gaps in the inventory.

1. Human excellence. As Theodore Roosevelt observed in his history of The Naval War of 1812, it takes the finest ships and the finest crews to make up a fleet capable of vying for maritime command. The finest weapon is no better than its wielder. Until the Liaoning ship’s company and air wing start operating regularly at sea, they are unlikely to develop the skills, habits, and esprit de corps necessary to contend with rivals like the U.S. Navy or Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. This may not matter that much for the foreseeable future, since the PLA Navy fleet will probably operate mainly within reach of extended-range shore fire support. But once the navy ventures beyond that protective aegis—and should competitors find ways to blunt the PLA’s anti-access weaponry—the human factor promises to become critical indeed.

All things considered China is certainly edging closer to a competent carrier capability but has yet to acquire some key ingredients to make the Liaoning successful. Beyond the points mentioned above, China has also experienced other setbacks. Don’t forget last year saw the arrest of Russian national Alexandr Yermakov when he attempted to sell China information on Ukraine’s land-based Naval Aviation Testing and Training Complex, (Nazemniy Ispitatelno-Tryenirovochniy Kompleks Aviatsii or NITKA), information which would supposedly  enhance carrier pilot training at Yan Liang AB. (Yermakov had reportedly been working for Chinese Defense firms for the last 10 years.) Then there’s the issues concerning the acquisition of arresting wires which may or may not have occurred depending on which sources you believe.

That said, this picture of the carrier was put out on the Chinese internet a couple of days ago showing tire marks and four supposed arresting cables on the surface of the Liaoning yet no video has been provided to the media exhibiting a successful take-off or landing on the carrier’s flight deck. With the way Chinese media has been openly touting the symbol of the carrier, I doubt it will be long before those videos appear after a successful launch and recovery has actually occured. Until that happens, enjoy the rest of the pictures released on 16OCT12:


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