By lex, on September 21st, 2008
China’s getting into the carrier aviation game:
China announced that its first class of carrier aviators had begun training at the Dalian Naval Academy. The naval officers will undergo a four year course of instruction to turn them into fighter pilots capable of operating off a carrier. China already has an airfield, in the shape of a carrier deck, built at an inland facility. The Russians have warned China that it may take them a decade or more to develop the knowledge and skills needed to efficiently run an aircraft carrier. The Chinese are game, and are slogging forward.
The PLAN’s operational platform is apparently to be the ex-RFS Varyag, auctioned to China in 1998, ostensibly to be a floating casino in Macau (cha!).
The Varyag was the second of two Kuznetsov-class carriers built by the Soviets. Originally intended to be competitor designs to American Nimitz-class ships, operational complexity drove the Former Soviet Union to downscale the ships to the 65,000 ton class, with conventional power plants and omitting catapults in favor of VSTOL-style jump ramps on the bow.
It’s one thing to buy an aircraft carrier and even to train the pilots who will fly aboard her. It’s an entirely different matter to operate her efficiently and effectively. There are literally dozens of people on the flight deck alone whose skills are operationally critical and for which no true formal training process exists – these are the last of the true guildsmen, shaped by decade-long apprenticeships under the stern tutelage of master technicians: people like Landing Signal Officers, Flight Deck Officers, Arresting Gear Officers, the Air Boss, the Gun Boss and Ordnance Handling Officer, the Handler, even Snoopy there in Flight Deck Control. Individually, each of them are nearly irreplaceable – in aggregation they represent hundreds of years collective experience operating at the finest margins of collaborative control. You can’t buy that off the shelf, and it will take decades of gradual experimentation (and operational losses) before China can dabble an operational toe in waters the US Navy has swum in continuously for almost a hundred years, along the way learning lessons written in blood and forged in fire.
All that’s before we get into the inherent limitations of trying to fight a ship using nothing but a dozen strike fighters (no matter how advanced) operating off a small-deck carrier using jump ramps.
Some analysts predict that ex-Varyag – now named Shi Lang, after the first Manchu general to seize Taiwan for China in 1683 – will only be a transitional ship, as China builds a more capable carrier in the future. (Shi Lang, history tells us, won great honor in the imperial court before being eventually charged with arrogance.)
So, yeah: This should be good.