This past week, Beijing announced that it had successfully launched and landed a J-15 fighter aircraft from its new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.
The announcement, accompanied by videos, makes clear that China has put substantial resources—both financial and human—toward its goal of operating aircraft carriers.
There were several notable aspects to this premier flight:
- The operation involved an actual take off and recovery of an aircraft. When the ship was first formally accepted into service in September 2012, there was already speculation about whether there had been “touch and go” landings on the deck, where an aircraft will lower its landing gear, touch down briefly on the flight deck at relatively low speed, before accelerating and climbing. Such maneuvers are part of the process of learning how to launch and recover aircraft. But this week’s development was much more advanced, involving the actual landing of an aircraft on the flight deck, with the use of arresting wires and a tailhook on the aircraft. This suggests a higher level of proficiency than had earlier been expected. Similarly, the videos of an aircraft taking off from the Liaoning display significant proficiency on the part of the Chinese pilot.
- The operation involved a high performance aircraft. The Chinese test belies much of the media speculation from as recently as this past September that China does not even possess carrier-capable high performance aircraft. It would have been easier, and safer, for the Chinese to have used a slower, lighter aircraft, such as a trainer, to mark its first public aircraft launch and recovery. Instead, Beijing demonstrated that it is much farther along in practicing shipborne takeoffs and landings and is not limited to practicing on land.
- The operation involved a domestically produced aircraft. The type of aircraft employed, too, was no accident. Part of the reason for the widespread skepticism about when China can put the Liaoning into operation rests on the assumption that the military does not possess any carrier-capable aircraft, since there have been no announced sales to China. This demonstration, however, employed a domestically produced aircraft, the J-15, albeit one clearly derived from Sukhoi. The decision to use a new, indigenously produced aircraft for this first public display suggests an underlying political message: Don’t underestimate what China can do when it sets its mind to it.
None of this should be taken to mean that the People’s Liberation Army will be conducting full-blown carrier operations in the South or East China Seas next year. It remains to be seen what other aircraft designs the Chinese have developed, including for airborne early warning and anti-submarine warfare.
But given the blithe, near-sneering dismissal of the Chinese carrier as recently as three months ago, it should remind us of the observations of Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance Vice Admiral David Dorsett:
I think one of the things that is probably true, true from my observation in the last several years, is we have been pretty consistent in underestimating the delivery and IOC [initial operating capability] of Chinese technology, weapon systems. They’ve entered operational capability quicker.