From: The Military Balance IISS
China’s armed forces continue to develop powerprojection capacity. The country’s first aircraft carrier, the 50,000 tonne Liaoning, was commissioned in late September 2012 after a long refit, modernisation and refurbishment programme. The vessel, based on the hull of the uncompleted Soviet carrier Varyag, was not expected to be fully operational for at least several years, with an air group comprising combat aircraft and helicopters, and as part of a battle group viable in anything more than a low-intensity environment.
Nonetheless, China’s intention to develop its aircraft-carrier capability is clear. In August–September 2012, during the vessel’s tenth sea trial, observers noted poles on either side of the deck, possibly orientation markers for training pilots at sea. Prototype J-15 aircraft later landed on the carrier in November 2012. A Z-8 AEW helicopter was photographed landing on the vessel in late 2011 and images were again released in 2012 of Z-8 AEW take-offs.
The crew of the Liaoning is engaged in a wide range of flight-deck training. This includes hangar and flight-deck organisation, and practice marshalling with mock-ups of the developmental J-15 and dummy-guided weapons. Mock-up anti-ship missiles have been seen, suggesting that the J-15 might have a multi-role capability from the outset, unlike the Su-33, which has a purely air-defence role (see p. 254). Also, deck crew wearing a variety of coloured overalls (suggesting allocation of flightdeck tasks) have been observed working on aircraft, although it is difficult to draw precise conclusions from available imagery.
The vessels are obviously high-value targets as well as key providers of military capability, and they need protection. The Z-8 might operate in an AEW role, but it is unclear how far the PLAN has advanced towards carrier task-group operations providing protection against air and subsurface threats. A fixed-wing carrier-borne AEW aircraft, the JZY-01, is known to be under development. Since 2011, the vessel has been equipped with an active phased array radar system and the Sea Eagle3D search radar and weapon systems including four 18-cell FL-3000N missile systems and two 12-tube anti-submarine rocket launchers.
Other less-publicised developments indicate the PLA’s steady development of offensive military capabilities. For instance, in July 2012, Internet imagery revealed what appeared to be launch tubes for the DH-10 land-attack cruise missile (LACM) aboard a test vessel. The Second Artillery first deployed the ground-launched DH-10 variant in 2006–08, and an air-launched variant, under development for more than five years, is probably on the brink of entering service. While anti-ship missiles are often observed on PLAN ships, a ship-based DH-10 would be significant in terms of providing land-attack capability from the sea.
The development of two new Type-052D destroyers suggests a continuing desire to enhance blue-water capabilities. In August 2012, the first images of a Type-052D in the water appeared; observers noted 64 vertical launch-system tubes on the ship.It is not yet clear whether the Type-052D will be built in quantity. In the past, the PLAN has constructed one or two vessels in a particular class before moving on to a more developed design. However, the last class developed, the Type-052C, included only six hulls over the past decade and, with the Type-052D perhaps reaching the technological limits of China’s current shipbuilding design and construction, the PLAN may prefer to build a larger fleet of Type-052Ds over a longer period, so that early lessons can be incorporated in later batches. In combination with the Type-052Cs and other classes, these ships could form the backbone of a globally deployable destroyer fleet.