China’s New Aircraft Carrier….Doing It The Hard Way

It strikes me that whilst China has begun to flex her military muscles, she might not be going about it the right way. Let’s take her latest two advances in military technology. Her newest foray into worldwide military reach comes in the form of a new aircraft carrier. China bought the unfinished hull from Ukraine 13 years ago. The hull is based on the old Soviet aircraft carrier design. It’s not very big, and uses a similar system in use on the now decommissioned Royal Navy carriers, that of a ski-jump, as opposed to the familiar steam catapult system.

The Chinese, as a nation, used to be known for their inventiveness. However the modern Chinese nation are far from their innovative cousins across the water in Japan and South Korea. Instead, the Chinese have embarked on a course of reverse engineering and mass production (not by automation, but by their automaton populace). And they have used these skillsets well in the course of the build-out of the aircraft carrier.

They first embarked on a shopping spree for used carriers back in 1985. They bought the decommisioned HMAS Melbourne from Australia’s Royal Navy, aswell as the ex-Soviet carriers, MinskKiev, along with the 70% completed hull of the Varyag from the Russians.

Thirteen years later, they have themselves a aircraft carrier. However, they still don’t know how to use the thing. It’s anticipated that they would deploy Sukhoi Su-33 navalised Flankers. But the pilots of the Chinese PLA have yet to figure out even how to manage carrier deck operations and the skills required to master landing and taking off on such short runways.

The other thing that bothers me about this whole carrier thing, is not the fact that they have one, but the fact that everyone quite openly deceived and lied to the public about the sale of Varyag to the Chinese in the first place. Varyag was never commissioned by the Soviet Navy and was sold to the People’s Republic of China by Ukraine under the condition she would never be refitted for combat. She was purchased through a private Macau tourist venture in 1998. Since her troublesome tow to Dalian shipyard, the carrier has undergone a long refit.

Varyag was stripped of any military equipment as well as her propulsion before she was put up for sale. But this was not a problem, because the Chinese bought the complete blueprints for her. In February 2011 Ukraine sentenced a Russian national to six years in prison for stealing secrets to assist China in its carrier program. According to the Ukraine, Aleksandr Yermakov was being paid by Chinese authorities to steal military secrets related to carrier operations from the Land-based Naval Aviation Testing and Training Complex, located in the Crimea near the city of Saki. Obviously the channels of sale and the convictions were just a ruse to placate the West.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are trying to create smoke-screens by hinting that the carrier will most likely not be used in a combat/defense role, but rather as a training ship. One foreign military official in Beijing was quoted in the FT as saying “It will probably be put under the Dalian Naval Academy rather than become a command of its own.” And an anonymous PLA officer added “The carrier is likely to remain in Dalian. Such an organisational setup will also make clear that the carrier is indeed a training platform rather than a threat.” Yeah, right!

If I was in the market for an aircraft carrier, one which I knew worked and was kept in top notch pristine condition, I’d have saved myself a ton of money and bought HMS Ark Royal. She’s up for auction where the MoD will accept all reasonable offers.

Their other new piece of kit is the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter. Based on the look of the plane, it looks like an exact copy of the failed Northrop entrant for the US Stealth Fighter program, the YF-23. states that China probably declined to participate in joint development and production of new fifth generation fighter with Russia given the belief that Russia stood to gain more from Chinese participation (probably that cheap labour gain, playing a vital role). Chinese leaders may have determined that their design was superior to the Russian PAK FA, itself a carbon copy of the Lockheed FB-22). United States House Committee on Armed Services chairman Howard McKeon said on the J-20 “my understanding is that they built it on information that they received from Russia, from a Russian plane, that they were able to copy”.

Balkan military officials told the Associated Press that China and Russia may have adopted some stealth technology from a Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, which was shot down by the Serbian military in 1999 during the Kosovo war. If Chinese experts used the F-117 stealth coatings, the result would still be decades behind current American state-of-the-art. However, Chinese test pilot Xu Yongling said that the J-20 was a “masterpiece” of home-grown innovation, he also said the F-117 technology was already “outdated” even at the time it was shot down, and could not be applied to a next-generation stealth jet. Janes editor James Hardy agrees that it was unlikely China would have learned much from the wreckage. Meanwhile retired USAF General Thomas G. McInerney has suggested that the J-20 design may have been based on cyber-espionage of the Lockheed Martin FB-22project and possibly the YF-23

Chief of the Air Staff of the Indian Air Force, Pradeep Vasant Naik, has suggested that the J-20 is entirely reverse engineered with no Chinese R&D involved, and questioned if the practice was ethical.The Deccan Chronicle has called Naik’s comment an “unusual outburst of helplessness” as China surpasses Indian airpower. Either way, not matter what way you slice and dice it, they did not dream up the plane themselves unaided and without someone else’s blueprints crib from.

Can someone say “Copyright Lawyer”?

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