The Liaoning, Beijing’s first aircraft carrier, is a refurbished second-hand vessel. But, despite its inauguration in 2012, it appears the vessel’s genuine war-readiness is still in doubt.
Party mouthpieces have all refrained from using the carrier’s former name, Varyag – no surprise, given that the Liaoning was a rusty, semi-scrap hull from Ukraine before it was given a new lease of life (and renamed after the northeastern province where the ship underwent a seven-year refit).
The carrier has already become a new tool for Beijing to whip up patriotic fervour among the masses, as seen by the vessel’s visit to Hong Kong in July, which was part of the military fanfare to mark the 20th anniversary of the territory’s handover.
But that same visit also enabled observers to have a rare up-close look at the Chinese carrier.
The first thing that famed military affairs commentator Andrei Chang, aka Pinkov, noticed was that the Liaoning may be much lighter in weight than the Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov – a vessel of the same class – having analysed thousands of photos he took during the carrier’s open day.
Liaoning has a displacement of 67,500 tonnes. But it appeared that technicians of the People’s Liberation Army Navy have done away with many ship-to-ship and ship-to-air missiles, as well as their launching pads and catapults.
Liaoning’s 15,500 square-meter flight deck was jam-packed with jet fighters like J15s and airborne early-warning aircraft. But there was a conspicuous absence of advanced anti-submarine helicopters, like the much-touted Z-18F with surface radar, plus dipping sonar against torpedoes and missiles, as Chang found.
This meant the Liaoning could be susceptible to attacks by submarines even if it had just concluded a high-profile war-game in the East China Sea prior to its Hong Kong port call.
Even Japan’s 27,000 tonne quasi-carrier JS Izumo has a fleet of seven anti-submarine helicopters.
After a tour inside the carrier’s hangar and other maintenance areas, Chang has become skeptical about the Liaoning’s genuine combat-readiness.
“These places are mostly empty, and it’s likely that fighters and other carrier-based aircraft are maintained and repaired somewhere onshore. This is unimaginable in a real war scenario when a seagoing airbase cannot even provide basic maintenance for its planes… US carriers, on the contrary, are all capable [of that],” said Chang.
Belching black smoke at Victoria Harbor
The steam-propelled Liaoning also received much mockery when photos showing it belching black fumes while docking at Victoria Harbour went viral on social media. Indeed, the pictures triggered some protests against the Chinese carrier polluting Hong Kong’s air.
Chang said the black smoke it emitted was probably due to incomplete combustion of heavy fuel with high sulphur content and the issue was not just a matter of image or air pollution. “The temperature of its smoke vents must be very high, making the carrier vulnerable to infrared detection.”
It is an open secret that Beijing dangled bailouts and generous cheap loans to get a stack of Varyag’s design and construction drawings from Ukraine, which reportedly weighed some 20 tonnes and enabled the comprehensive rebuilding of the carrier after it changed hands via a middleman to the Chinese military.
China-made steel, flight-deck structures and weapons systems were subsequently welded to the decades-old Soviet hulk to make a complete carrier.
Yet it remains to be seen if new steel parts in different configurations installed – almost like a whole set of organ transplants – might lead to any complications that may compromise the Liaoning’s structural integrity and its combat capabilities.
Chang’s initial assessment is that the Liaoning is more like a training and research “mock” carrier than a real, war-ready airbase on the sea.
Ma Ding-sheng, host of a well-known military TV talkshow, said in a separate interview that China’s “grade-skipping” – building and operating full-scale carriers from scratch – meant it lacked experience in building such vessels, and there really are no shortcuts.
Its ‘1980s technology is already obsolete’
“You have to gain experience in steps, from running small to medium-sized vertical/short takeoff and landing airbases all the way to big carriers,” said Ma.
And the Liaoning is already becoming obsolete, given it’s a mix of 1980s technologies, which that are dated by today’s standards.
In this regard, as Ma stressed, the vessel’s propulsion system is a key weakness. Nuclear-powered US carriers’ have an obvious upper hand over Beijing’s slower, steam-driven ships.
“A slow-moving carrier can be a drag during when fighters take-off. So, their combat capacity and responsiveness, like conventionally powered ships, need far more frequent refueling during wartime.”