“Aircraft carriers are incomparable and cannot be replaced by other weapons,” wrote Senior Capt. Li Jie, a researcher at the Chinese Naval Research Institute, in an Aug. 21 commentary published on websites linked to the Chinese military. “If a big power wants to become a strong power, it has to develop aircraft carriers.”
CLOSING TECHNOLOGICAL GAP
China originally bought the Varyag in 1998 claiming it wanted to turn the ship, which had been stripped of its engines and anything of military value, into a “floating casino”. The extended period of trials and preparations for the carrier suggests it has yet to get it on a wartime footing, let alone close the technological gap with more advanced navies.
One major challenge China faces is building a fleet of specialized fixed wing aircraft and helicopters to operate from a carrier’s flight deck.
China is working on developing a new strike aircraft, designated the J-15, that appears to be a reverse-engineered version of Russia’s Su-33 fighter, according to photographs and video footage published on Chinese websites.
The Su-33 is the Russian jet that would have flown from the carrier if it had joined the Soviet navy.
China already has fully imported and domestically built versions of similar Russian fighters, but experts say adapting flight control software, avionics, weapons, radars and airframes for much more demanding carrier operations is complex and expensive.
“There are a whole range of engineering and operational tasks the Chinese need to work through before they have an aircraft they can reliably operate from a carrier,” says Kopp, who studied China’s aircraft carrier aviation program for a research paper his think tank published earlier this year.