The Liaoning, a former Kuznetsov-class warship, is perfect for a navy that wants to show its teeth in regional waters. But as a recent New York Times article reveals, China has no carrier planes. Pilot training for carrier landings are handled on land and their J-8 aircraft are unsuitable for carrier operations. And like any used car, the vessel may still be in need of some serious work. Liaoning will be used for training purposes for the time being.
China has scored publicity points by buying the ex-Varyag from the Ukrainians, but the cost of owning and operating an aircraft carrier is simply astronomical. You need tons of diesel fuel (Global Security.org claims that the carrier would be refitted with marine diesels instead of steam or gas turbines, and this would reduce its cruising speed while at sea), munitions, spare parts, jet fuel, pilots and air crews, sailors, helicopters, and enough food and supplies to run a small city. The cost of keeping an aircraft carrier on station is equally daunting; Global Security reports that five out of eleven U.S. carriers were actively deployed in August alone.
There is also the challenge in training sailors and pilots on a warship that may never find a war. If Chinese personnel are inadequate to the task, this projection of sea power will be a pipe dream. The New York Times speculates that the Liaoning will influence planners to build a new generation of planes and a more suitable platform to use them. In a Sept. 26 interview on National Public Radio, a military expert said that China has the shipbuilding capability to make a better carrier. Of course, the learning curve for designers and builders could be considerable.
One obvious risk could keep the new warship in friendly waters: carriers make very big targets. Unless China converts Liaoning into a permanent classroom, rival powers will be watching the carrier’s every move.