China celebrated the commissioning this week of its first aircraft carrier with blustering statements and warnings to neighbors in Asia that the warship will help China settle its numerous maritime disputes.
However, the aircraft carrier Liaoning has one major deficiency: No warplanes so far have been observed taking off from or landing on the ship — making its current utility as a strategic power projection tool questionable.
U.S. intelligence agencies for years closely watched the carrier, a refurbished Soviet-era vessel, during its 10 sea trials. To date, there are no photos showing aircraft taking off from or landing on its ski-jump deck.
The closest the Chinese have come to an actual aircraft on board was a J-15 jet “mock-up” seen with wings folded on the deck during the ship’s ninth sea trial in July. It is believed the jet was placed on board by a crane.
Intelligence agencies have spotted Chinese jets for years conducting short takeoffs and landings at an inland airfield.
But analysts so far do not believe the Chinese military has the expertise needed for aircraft operations from the carrier, something the U.S. Navy has specialized in for decades.
By contrast, U.S. carrier pilots are among the most skilled aviators in the world, and for decades have had the unique ability to conduct hundreds of takeoffs and landings on pitching warship decks in daylight, darkness and bad weather, according to observations by Inside the Ring after spending two nights aboard the USS George Washington in the Persian Gulf several years ago.
China’s state-run press and vibrant Internet also failed to make any mention of the lack of warplanes on the prized carrier.
It is not known why the carrier lacks jets, and speculation has focused on the lack of carrier-modified aircraft and trained pilots for such operations. Another theory is that the Chinese air force and navy are so uncoordinated that they have not developed a carrier aviation capability.
The carrier could be used for attack helicopters, although none has been spotted on the ship.
Chinese commentary has hailed the new carrier as an event on par with China’s first underground test of a nuclear weapon in 1964.
“Nearly 100 years after the world’s first aircraft carrier was built, China, as the world’s second largest economy and most populous country, eventually has its own aircraft carrier,” the state-run Xinhua news agency said in a commentary, noting the Liaoning is a “landmark” for China's military buildup.
Following Beijing’s main propaganda theme that its arms buildup is peaceful, the commentary stated that “China will not join any arms race, pose a threat to other countries or exceed its national and economic strength to develop arms.”
A China Daily report on the carrier sounded a more threatening tone: “China should continue to modernize its military forces step by step, including the building of aircraft carriers. When China has a more balanced and powerful navy, the regional situation will be more stable as various forces that threaten regional peace will no longer dare to act rashly.”