Look out! China only about a century behind now

The hulk of the Varyag before it was turned into the Liaoning.

Mike Fitts, whom I can rely on to keep me apprised as to foreign military intel, particularly of a naval variety, calls my attention to this report about China beginning flight operations on its first aircraft carrier:

While we here at Killer Apps were enjoying the last day of our Thanksgiving holiday, the Chinese navy was busy conducting its first ever takeoffs and landings from its brand new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, with brand-new J-15 fighter jets.

Some observers have hailed this as the start of a new era in naval history while others aren’t so impressed. So far, the U.S. Defense Department seems unconcerned.

“We are aware of media reports that the Chinese successfully landed an aircraft on the deck of a carrier,” said Pentagon press secretary George Little during a briefing with reporters this morning. “This would come as no surprise. We’ve been monitoring Chinese military developments for some time…

Which is impressive, until you read this:

The Liaoning was built with the hull of an incomplete Soviet carrier that China bought from Ukraine in 1998, claiming that it would be turned into a casino or something. Instead, China completely refurbished the ship, installing new engines, modern electronics, and sensor systems, turning the old hulk into a “starter carrier.”…

Really? China is this gigantic economic powerhouse with superpower ambitions, and yet they had to buy their first carrier third-hand, and spend 14 years tinkering with it before the first plane lands on its deck?

This got me to thinking — how many built-from-scratch carriers did little old Japan next door have in during WWII — seven decades ago? Looks like about 25 that were actually commissioned, from various sources I’ve glanced at. (Burl, help me out.)

And when was the first time a pilot landed on a carrier? An American did it in 1911. Of course, the ship wasn’t moving. The first to land on a moving warship was Squadron Commander E.H. Dunning of the Royal Navy, in 1917. The first purpose-built aircraft carrier (as opposed to a repurposed hull) was Japan’s Hōshō in 1922.

It is believed that China will commission its first homemade carrier in 2015 or 2016 — as much as 94 years after the first Japanese flattop. It will be sometime after that before the Chinese navy has worked itself  up into having an effective naval air operations force.

Yeah, I know — these new ships will do things that would look like magic from the perspective of 1922. But still. As fast as China is running to catch up, it’s rather stunning to consider how very far that nation is behind in the simple fact of naval aviation.

24 thoughts on “Look out! China only about a century behind now

  1. Steven Davis II

    From the country that gives us Harbor Freight.

    Word has it that it took several attempts for the first pilot to land on the stationary ship.

  2. Steven Davis II

    The problem is China has to reverse engineer/steal all of their technology then figure out how it works once designed. Their new carrier uses the oldest system, a ramp launch system. our newest one will use electromagnetic launch systems. I suspect Chinese carriers will be using the same system once they get get copies of files for our system.

  3. Mark Stewart

    Steven, that would make sense; it is very difficult to land a jet on a stationary ship. That’s why ours sail into the wind for flight operations.

  4. Silence

    @SDII you are correct. China will make (and has made) advances in manufacturing, technology, and military hardware faster than anyone reasonably estimated. Of course getting the doctrine and training right will take some time too, it’s not just fielding the equipment. But this is a start, and shows the direction of their ambition.

    Loral & Bill Clinton’s commerce department helped their missile programs along quite a bit if I recall – I think they basically gave them twenty year’s worth of technology.

  5. Tavis Micklash

    Do NOT sleep on China.

    I can tell you from a submarine aspect we took them seriously. They are a significant force in the China Sea.

    First don’t buy into the arguement that nuclear is superior to Diesel Subs. Diesel subs are very quiet when they aren’t on the diesels. They can go for days on the battery now with new technology.

    Also with a home field advantage they can easily outnumber any american fleets 3 to 1. So while one on one the US are superior, once the sub fires the advantage is gone.

    As far as dismissing the chinese naval fleet the US dismissed another countries military capabilities before. In the 30s we dismissed Japanese Zeros as a joke and made of paper. These paper airplanes later decimated the pacific fleet and ot was only by luck that the US carrier fleet was delayed and not in port.

    There is a valuable lesson here that America shouldn’t underestimate any countries military capability. If for no reason that a cornered nation will throw every last man at the enemy. The US is war weary and would never be able to stomach the loses that we would take in a prolonged mission against Chinese forces.

  6. bud

    For all you folks out there that take the Chinese military threat seriously ask yourselves this. We outspend the Chinese by at least 4 to 1 on the military. If they constitute a major military threat then shouldn’t our military planners be called out for incompetence? Besides we are in no way in danger from ANY Chinese military threat for many years if we simply do the common sense thing and keep our military footprint out of Asia.

  7. Wad Brathen

    @Mark – Do you know anything about carrier aviation? I know more than a little though I wasn’t a carrier pilot. In carrier qualifications, pilots start out landing on a stationary carrier, only after do they make X-number successful traps do they move on to moving ships. The landing pattern is an angle, which is always moving to the right as the pilot flies his approach. Flying into the wind hasn’t been a big deal since the days of propeller engines… sure it helps, but isn’t necessary on launches or captures.

  8. Wad Brathen

    @bud – Are you comparing the US military to the Chinese military? Do we need to wait until a Chinese soldier fires a single round at an American soldier before thinking about how to defend ourselves from them. There’s a thing called the War College, which I’m guessing you aren’t a graduate of.

    Our soldiers are getting killed by pipes filled with rocks and nails, do we need to reduce our military funding to that level?

  9. Brad

    One ping only, Vasily!

    Actually, Steven, I think naval aviators initially practice on a painted mock deck on a landing strip on land. At least, that’s the way it used to be done. Not sure about now.

    That caused quite a few washouts, if I recall correctly — the psychological shock of looking down at something that tiny and being expected to land on it is more than some pilots can handle. I’m pretty sure it would freak ME out.

    You have to have a rare combination of skill and devil-may-care recklessness to land on a carrier. Much of my knowledge of this comes from Tom Wolfe and may be out of date, but back in the day, it was essentially a controlled CRASH on a tiny target, and you had to increase your engine’s thrust to full power as you hit the deck.

  10. Brad

    And Tavis — perhaps I was a bit too facetious on this post. I DO take China seriously, and the president is wise to be shifting our long-term strategic focus to the western Pacific.

    To explain to Bud — it’s not that China is threatening to become a worldwide naval power, the way we are and the way Britain once was. At least, not in the foreseeable future. But in that neighborhood, they’re making a number of our allies — accustomed to the U.S. being the only cop on that block — very nervous.

    The concern for the U.S. is to counter a regional threat more than a global one.

    That won’t be a satisfactory answer for Bud, of course, because he’d like the U.S. military confined to our own borders. He agrees strategically with Grover Norquist, who recently said we only did a government big enough to provide “a military strong enough to keep the Canadians on their side of the border.”

    Although I’m told Norquist was joking when he said that.

  11. Juan Caruso

    The U.S. will take China seriously when a Chinese carrier accepts Mexico’s invitation to moor at its only deep water port (which both Germany and the U.S. had used previously, and even Japan had considered prior to WWII).

    When will an invitation for assistance be extended to China? When liberals/progressives and their ilk finally succeed in disarming American citizens.

  12. a_obama

    Hi, Brad,

    After reading your post, I am very much relieved and feel much more secured now.

    But one thing still bothers me. 61-year ago, then Chief of Staff of US air force Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg testified before the Congress about Korean air war. He claimed, (Actually EXCLAIMED, my guess is he was just trying to cover-up his own failures.) that Red China became a major air force power “almost overnight”.

    At the start of the Korean war, I heard, that the Chinese were so poorly trained, so poorly equipped that many of them had to use their bayonets, or meat cleavers maybe, to fight against the Allies’ air crafts and tanks. I estimate they probably were more than 5,000 years behind the US troops. How did they manage to hold the line in Korea? Should we correct Gen.
    Vandenberg’s statement through Korean War v2.0?

    BTW, I heard many people argue the new F-35s from LM are not a match to the Su-27s in real air fight. The Su-27s are much less useful and much less powerful than the J-15s they just built. I am a math nut and couldn’t figure out how “stunning” in years “to consider how very far that nation is behind in the simple fact of naval aviation.”

  13. bud

    That won’t be a satisfactory answer for Bud, of course.

    No it won’t. The Chinese aren’t a threat to anyone right now. And the Koreans and Japanese are big, industrial nations that can fend for themselves. If China tries to invade Taiwan I say let them have it. If they try to invade Korea they’re likely to suffer extreme consequences in international trade relations. That alone should be enough to deter that as a possibility. If they try to invade Japan, well Japan would likely kick their butts given enough time to build their own military. Not sure why any of this is our concern. Now if Mexicans begin pouring across our border by the thousands. Wait, they’re already doing that and the only consequence is we can hire lawn services cheaply. All this paranoia about hypothetical foreign threats seems so misguided.

  14. Brad

    Statements such as this: “If China tries to invade Taiwan I say let them have it.”

    … bring out the Bill Lumbergh in me: Yeahhhh… I’m just going to have to go ahead and disagree with you there…

  15. Steven Davis II

    “I think naval aviators initially practice on a painted mock deck on a landing strip on land. ”

    They still do, and they also practice carrier landings on the same concrete deck using a functioning carrier landing system under the runway. No use having pilots flying into a ship if they can only land… if they wash out at that point I think they just transfer them to the Air Force.

  16. bud

    Brad we agree on much but the gap between you and me on this military stuff is pretty much irreconcilable. I just really don’t see what business it is of ours if Taiwan and mainland China are re-united. At one time they were part of the same country so is it really so far fetched to suggest that it would not be a terrible thing if they were once again part of the same country? Hong-Kong is now a part of China and as far as I know there hasn’t been this horrible devastation wrought against the British. The canal zone in Panama was turned over to that country and nothing terrible happened. It’s just beyond me why so many pro-military folks see a looming disaster any time national borders change. Why is accepted as an article of faith that Taiwan should under no circumstances ever become part of China? It’s just not our business. And certainly nothing to spend trillions of dollars trying to prevent.

  17. Brad

    Bud, I just want to make sure sailors like your son have what they need.

    Maybe the Spanish could get into another spat over Nootka Sound, and we can build a proper fleet again. Hey, worked for the Brits — and if it hadn’t, they wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to stop Bonaparte, a threat that didn’t yet exist at the time (See “Spanish Armament,” circa 1790).

  18. Steven Davis II

    Brad, I’m in the process of updating my unapproved topics list. So I should put down Coast Guard jokes too?

  19. tavis micklash

    Bud said

    ” I just really don’t see what business it is of ours if Taiwan and mainland China are re-united. At one time they were part of the same country so is it really so far fetched to suggest that it would not be a terrible thing if they were once again part of the same country?”

    First country Hitler invaded was Austria, a former German state. The world basically ceded them with weak objections.

    The shear havoc this would due to the financial markets would be nuts. Not to mention I believe we have a mutual aid treaty with them.

    Now the larger question is what are the options if China decides move on Taiwan? They are all pretty crappy. In the 90s every time China got flaky Clinton sent a Carrier group. That’s just not going to cut it anymore if China really wants to push out.

    Taiwan is a symbolic now mostly. China’s economy is a juggernaut and they have the resources to spare. More to be lost than won.

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