Two hemispheres and two very different aircraft carrier stories to cover. China's first indigenously produced aircraft carrier, and their second carrier overall, has left its berth at the shipyards in northeastern Dalian for the first time. The vessel, which was officially launched a year ago, disappeared into the early morning fog as it headed out on initial sea trials Sunday morning. Meanwhile, French Navy aircraft, including E-2C Hawkeyes and Rafale Ms, are conducting carrier qualifications and interoperability training aboard the USS George H.W. Bush as the supercarrier sails in the Atlantic off Norfolk.
China's entry into the carrier aviation space has been breathtaking to observe. In 2012, China's first carrier, the Liaoning, was commissioned. It was rebuilt out of the rusted hulk that was the Soviet-era Kuznetsov class carrier Riga—a vessel that was acquired through a complex gambit of international business dealings and espionage.
Less than four years after it was commissioned it and its air wing were deemed fully operational and ready for combat. Now, two years later, China's first homemade carrier based on Liaoning—known in China as the Type 001A—has become a reality. And Beijing didn't just clone the Kuznetsov class turned Type 001 design entirely, they improved upon it in many ways.
The Type 001A visually differs from the Liaoning in some very apparent ways. Most notably, its island superstructure has been totally redesigned. It now includes another glazed deck allowing for the bridge and flight control areas to be separate. It features a new faceted upper area to accommodate four electronically scanned radar arrays—reportedly of the Type 346 S-band radar system.
Although taller, this new island has a reconfigured and streamlined footprint that adds more deck operating space to the Kuznetsov design. Other parts of the deck have been tweaked as well to maximize operating space. Changes to the ship's bulbous bow and screw-rudder layout have also been mentioned in the press.
The ship's ski-jump has also been changed, with a 12-degree slope instead of 15 on the Liaoning. Supposedly this is optimal for China's J-15 fighters. The big angled missile launchers buried in the Kuznetsov class's deck, which China abandoned when it refurbished the Liaoning, have been totally deleted from the revamped Type 001A design. This provides drastically more room for flight operations-related spaces. The ship's hangar bay has also been enlarged as a result of the removal of the launch tubes and by finding efficiencies elsewhere in the design, which includes installing smaller and more modern subsystems.
These and a number of other smaller changes allow for the Type 001A to carry more fighters and sustain their operations for longer with more fuel and ammunition. Estimates range from this new sub-type being able to accommodate between three and eight more aircraft. The ship's combat systems and electronics are also totally modern, which will provide much higher situational awareness, reliability, and combat capability, with the carrier working more dynamically as the center of the battle group.
Yet even with these changes, and the swapping out of older, bulkier systems for new smaller ones, the ship's displacement supposedly increased by about 5,000 tons. Although still relying on steam boilers for propulsion, Type 001A's power-plants are supposedly more efficient, powerful, and reliable than their rehabbed Soviet-era counterparts, which will more than makes up for the displacement growth in terms of performance.
Really, this ship is all the Kuznetsov class could and should have been. Some state that once this vessel is operational, the Liaoning will work more as a training and reserve ship than a frontline carrier. That is highly debatable as China's carrier capability is still in its infancy. It's more likely such a plan will only come to pass if and or when a second Type 001A is completed.
China will supposedly be moving on to catapult-assisted takeoff and barrier-assisted recovery (CATOBAR) carrier configuration for aircraft carrier builds, with this 'Type 002' configuration supposedly already under construction. But it's possible we could still see another Type 001A built concurrently or even in the future depending on how the Type 002 program develops.
A second carrier definitely puts China out of the niche or developmental capability club when it comes to naval aviation power projection capabilities. Considering how much Beijing has been putting Liaoning to use, this second vessel will bring about an entirely new level of Chinese naval presence in the region. But above all else, the fact that China could reverse engineer and build what is by all estimates a far better ship than its predecessor, is stunning and is even more evidence that the country is well on its way to fielding a world-class carrier force without needing to rely on external help.
The yet to be officially named Type 001A is slated to become operational in 2019.
Halfway around the globe, the Marine Nationale is deep within their much-anticipated deployment to the United States to train with their U.S. Navy counterparts and to operate aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. Dubbed Chesapeake 2018, the training exercise is especially crucial for French naval aviators and the crews that support them as France's only aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, has been undergoing a complex mid-life overhaul that began over a year ago and still has a ways to go before being completed. This means France's naval air wing has not been able to receive carrier qualifications for well over a year. But that's all changing with the help of the U.S. Navy.
Here are some shots from the USS George H.W. Bush of France's Rafales and Hawkeyes in action:
France's carrier-capable aircraft use the same launch and recovery infrastructure as their American counterparts, allowing them to fly off the decks of U.S. Navy supercarriers, and vice-versa.
With the tightening military relationship between the U.S. and France, and both French and American presidents spearheading a closer strategic relationship overall, the possibility of an operational deployment of French aircraft aboard an American carrier is increasingly possible. The same can be said for U.S. Navy aircraft joining France's carrier air wing during a cruise aboard their carrier once it's back in service. We previously discussed this possibility in our post reporting on plans for the French visit the U.S. for exercise that is now underway:
"Longer-term cross-decking used to be a more common occurrence decades ago. In particular, American carrier-borne Navy squadrons would occasionally spend time operating aboard Royal Navy CATOBAR configured carriers and vice-versa. This practice was largely curtailed once HMS Ark Royal, the last Royal Navy CATOBAR carrier, was retired in 1979.
But this practice looks to be on the verge of a renaissance of sorts, and not just because Rafales are deploying to the USS George H.W. Bush. The USMC F-35Bswill be among the first aircraft to deploy operationally aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth. The Royal Navy even built a special USMC space within the ship in anticipation of near constant cooperative USMC-Royal Navy F-35B deployments. Considering that multiple other allied Naval arms are now interested in making their helicopter carriers F-35B capable, and procuring small lots of the jets themselves, this practice could become far more widespread.
It remains unclear if a future multi-national carrier cruise between the Marine Nationale and the U.S. Navy at the squadron level will ever occur, but after this exercise it may be far more plausible than any time in the past few decades. Even a small deployment of say six French Rafales-Ms and a Hawkeye could be integrated into an existing air wing for an upcoming operational cruise, and there is plenty of room on American supercarriers' decks these days to accommodate a foreign aircraft contingent. During the Cold War, Nimitz class supercarriers would carry upwards of 90 aircraft, today they commonly deploy with around 65, and many of those aircraft derivatives of the Super Hornet. "
We are truly entering into a renaissance of carrier aviation. China, India, and the UK are all in process of building multi-carrier fleets. Meanwhile, the F-35B is making high-end strike fighter capabilities attainable to naval arms that can't afford, or have no plans on building large carriers. Japan and South Korea, in particular, are looking at modifying ships they already have to accommodate the F-35B, and it's likely that others, like Australia, will follow. The potential availability of surplus USMC AV-8B Harriers could also make fast-jet carrier aviation a more attainable reality for other countries that can't afford or are not allowed to acquire the F-35B.
Yet China's marathon effort to bring serious power projection via naval aviation to its seagoing service is the most dizzying of all, and it is impacting the procurement decisions of its regional peers dramatically. India, in particular, is looking to check China's growing naval aviation prowess with its own indigenous carrier design and roadmap that will eventually bring CATOBAR capability to its Navy.
But above all else, one thing is certain, after decades of decline, the aircraft carrier is becoming a must-have weapon of war for many countries once again.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com