China formally stands up its first carrier aviation unit

Here’s some Monday news: China has apparently commissioned its first aircraft carrier-based aviation unit. We’ve known for years that a small cadre of Chinese pilots has been practicing landings and takeoffs on landlocked mock-ups of an aircraft carrier flight deck. Last fall, these pilots conducted their first-ever carrier flight operations when they took off and ...

Chinese Internet
Chinese Internet
Chinese Internet

Here's some Monday news: China has apparently commissioned its first aircraft carrier-based aviation unit.

We've known for years that a small cadre of Chinese pilots has been practicing landings and takeoffs on landlocked mock-ups of an aircraft carrier flight deck. Last fall, these pilots conducted their first-ever carrier flight operations when they took off and landed aboard China's first carrier, the Liaoning.

It appears these pilots are set to start training the next crop of Chinese naval aviators, according to a report from Xinhua that came out over the weekend.

Here’s some Monday news: China has apparently commissioned its first aircraft carrier-based aviation unit.

We’ve known for years that a small cadre of Chinese pilots has been practicing landings and takeoffs on landlocked mock-ups of an aircraft carrier flight deck. Last fall, these pilots conducted their first-ever carrier flight operations when they took off and landed aboard China’s first carrier, the Liaoning.

It appears these pilots are set to start training the next crop of Chinese naval aviators, according to a report from Xinhua that came out over the weekend.

The forming of the force, approved by the Central Military Commission (CMC), demonstrates that the development of China’s aircraft carriers has entered a new phase, the sources said.

The force comprises carrier-borne fighter jets, jet trainers and ship-borne helicopters that operate anti-submarine, rescue and vigilance tasks.

Pilots of this unit must have at least 1,000 flight hours and have flown five different types of aircraft, according to Xinhua.

Liaoning is meant to serve as China’s "starter carrier." It will give this first class of pilots and sailors experience operating a floating airport — one of the toughest things in aviation. It took decades for the U.S. Navy to master the art of flying fast jets off of 4.5-acre flight decks (they were even smaller 60 years ago) that are bobbing in the ocean.

The carrier started life as the Soviet ship Varyag. However, she sat unfinished in a Ukrainian shipyard for a decade or so after the breakup of the USSR. In 1998, Chinese investors bought the hulk without engines, electrical equipment, or weapons with the stated intention or turning it into a casino. However, toward the end of the last decade, photos emerged of the ship being refitted for naval service.

At the same time, China began developing its own carrier-based fighter jet, called the J-15, based on the Russian Su-27 — a carrier-borne fighter developed by the Soviets in the 1980s to fly off Varyag‘s sister ship, the Admiral Kuznetsov. The Su-33 is a navalized version of the Sukhoi Su-27 land-based fighter.

China apparently bought a Su-27 from Ukraine and reverse-engineered it to develop its J-11 fighter after Russian officials refused to sell the type to China. Once they had a J-11, Chinese engineers developed their own navalized version, the J-15.

China is apparently at work building at least two more aircraft carriers that are reported to enter service sometime in the next decade or so. Some say these ships will be based on the Liaoning‘s design, meaning they can carry about 30 fighters, while others say they may be based on the Soviets’ larger, unfinished follow-on to the Admiral Kuznetsov, the Ulanovsk, meant to carry almost 50 planes plus helicopters.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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