It’s always good to know the enemy’s capabilities and equipment so let’s take a quick look at some photos of the Chinese ski ramp aircraft carrier Liaoning and see what it can tell us about Chinese ship design philosophy. As a reminder, the Liaoning is the former Soviet Kuznetsov class ship, Varyag, which was stripped down after the collapse of the Soviet Union, acquired by the Chinese, and completely overhauled and rebuilt. Here’s a photo of the carrier:
|Liaoning - Stern View|
Let’s look at some aspects of the ship that offer insights into Chinese naval philosophy and ship design.
Copy - The first thing that jumps out is that the Chinese rebuilt the ship as a near carbon copy of US aircraft carrier design to the extent possible for a ski ramp variant. Aside from the obvious direct copies of the angled deck, starboard side midships island, stern sponsons port and starboard, smaller forward sponsons, four arresting cables, and bow and waist ‘catapults’ (take off spots), there are other, smaller duplications. The optical landing system on the port side is a carbon copy of US systems in design, function, and location. The flight deck lighting scheme appears to be a direct copy. There even appears to be a copy of the US standard stern debarkation platform.
China has produced no visually unique design features. There is no evident innovation. This kind of blind copying is illegal (patent and other infringements) and unethical – which China doesn’t care about in the least – but, worse for China, bypasses all the learning that led to the end result. That learning is also called institutional knowledge. Yes, by stealing and copying the designs of others, China has leaped to the desired end point but has done so without the intervening steps which produce underlying knowledge and expertise. This deprives them of actual design understanding and experience and makes future modifications and improvements difficult, if not impossible. Bad for them, good for us.
The Chinese have so committed to matching the US Navy that they’ve adopted literal copying as the path to achieving that match. While this may, indeed, result in matching, or overmatching based on numbers of ships, it precludes them from true naval innovation. They won’t/can’t come up with a truly unique naval design that might give them a decided advantage. In contrast, the US has attempted to develop unique designs and technologies such as the Zumwalt, LCS, unmanned vessels, EMALS, Advanced Arresting Gear, and so forth. Of course, most of those attempts have been dismal failures but the attempts were there. China appears to have limited themselves to outright copying. Again, bad for them, good for us.
Weapons Fit – One noteworthy point of departure from US carrier design is the ship’s weapons fit. The Chinese have a clear philosophical leaning towards a more robust defensive weapons fit. Here’s the defensive weapons fit for the Liaoning (note, photos show the weapons fit varying over time so this is a typical, recent fit):
- 3x HHQ-10, 18-cell short range anti-air missile (3 x 18 cells = 54 missiles)[a]
- 3x Type 1130, 30 mm CIWS
- 2x 12-barrel RBU ASW rocket depth charge launcher
- 4x Decoy/Chaff launcher (24 barrels ea)
- 4x 16-tube ???? (port and starboard midships, function/type unknown)
[a]Reports list 4x HHQ-10 but I’ve only been able to verify 3x in photos
Here's some photos of the various weapons and locations:
|Weapons Fit - Starboard Stern|
|Weapons Fit - Starboard Amidships|
|Weapons Fit - Port Forward|
|Weapons Fit - Port Amidships|
|Weapons Fit - Port Stern|
By comparison, a typical US Nimitz class has the following typical defensive weapons fit:
- 3x Sea Sparrow, 8-cell anti-air missile (3 x 8 cells = 24 missiles)
- 3x 20 mm CIWS
- 4x SRBOC (Super Rapid Bloom Offboard Chaff), 6-barrel (4 x 6 barrel = 24 barrels)
Clearly, the Chinese believe combat is inevitable and that more robust fits are the way to emerge victorious. In this, they are correct. US ship designs have become positively anemic regarding weapon fits.
Consider the weapons fit on WWII carriers. They were crammed with weapons of all types. Of course, there is no direct comparison between the weapons of WWII and today but there most certainly is a direct and valid comparison in the density of weapons and, in that, today’s ships and carriers are woefully lacking. The Chinese design, while it pales compared to WWII designs in weapons fit, is still an improvement over our carriers.
What this demonstrates is that the Chinese are serious about combat and we are not. They expect their carriers to fight and be exposed in combat and are attempting to provide the weapons to enable their ships to survive. The US, on the other hand, has designed carriers so expensive and so bereft of weapons that it is unlikely that we will even risk our carriers in combat and, if they do engage in combat, they have a reduced likelihood of survival.
Philosophy – The photos show a complete, fully functional carrier, albeit one that has no front line future in the Chinese navy due to its ski ramp and the evident desire of the Chinese to move beyond ski ramp carriers and on to conventional, large, ?nuclear?, carriers. Why would the Chinese spend the money and resources on producing a carrier that they knew would not hold a front line position for very long? Not only that, but they also built a brand new carrier, the Type 002 Shandong, which is a functional carbon copy of the Liaoning. What does this imply?
The implication is that the Chinese are deadly serious about developing carriers that are equivalent (or superior !) to the Nimitz/Ford designs and that they want to do so as quickly as possible. Thus, the Liaoning and Shandong are temporary vessels intended to develop carrier construction techniques and manufacturing infrastructure and to gain operating experience while the succeeding conventional carriers were being built and outfitted. Ponder the immensity of that … the Chinese built/rebuilt two entire, large carriers just to operate them for a few years in order to gain experience! That speaks to a focus, intensity, and drive to achieve military superiority that we utterly lack. Can you imagine the US building an entire carrier just to operate it for a few years to gain experience? It’s outside of our mindset to even contemplate that.
The other telling implication is the mere fact of the carrier’s existence. While we are debating the usefulness of carriers and many US naval observers are calling for further reductions – or outright elimination ! – of carriers, the Chinese are pushing as hard as they can to build a carrier fleet. That tells us that the Chinese see great value in a carrier fleet and that, alone, should serve as a strident warning to us as we steadily reduce our carrier power. We’re debating carriers while the Chinese are building them as fast as they can! That strongly suggests that the Chinese envision an eventual head-to-head carrier battle with the US and are working to ensure that they come out the winners.
Alternatively, they may envision a future where we have reduced our carrier fleet to the point of impotence and, when that happens, the Chinese intend to be right there, dictating naval supremacy with a powerful carrier fleet that will vastly overmatch whatever remnants of a carrier fleet we leave ourselves.
The Chinese have seen the lesson of WWII in which powerful, roving carrier groups were able to control the seas – and thus control the land ! - and they see the obvious application of that lesson to today’s battlefields. We, on the other hand, have bought into the network/data approach which sees no great value in firepower. The Chinese have placed their bet on firepower while we have bet on data. I know which I think is the winning hand.
The Chinese are coming for us and they’re not even pretending otherwise. We need to take heed.