China’s state media reports that the country’s first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, is now “combat ready.” The ship’s political commissar says the ship is “preparing for actual combat at any time.” Despite the tough talk, all evidence indicates that Beijing’s sole flat top is likely a mere training vessel that would do very poorly in actual combat.
Liaoning was commissioned into service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy in 2012. Originally built for the Soviet Navy, her unfinished hull languished in a Ukrainian shipyard after the end of the Cold War. Purchased by a PLA front company under the guise of housing a casino, the hull was towed back to China where it spent nearly a decade being refitted. The carrier was modernized in a Dalian shipyard to carry 18-20 J-15B strike fighters and up to a dozen helicopters.
Four years later, is Liaoning ready for combat? Almost certainly not. China may have trained up enough pilots to man the ship’s air wing (less than half the size of its American counterpart) and operate the ship, but the world of carrier operations is an extremely complex and dangerous. The ship’s crew and the embarked air wing must work seamlessly to provide a ready warship capable of tackling a variety of threats. This alone took the U.S. Navy decades to accomplish, and there is no way China could achieve a similar level of proficiency in just four years.
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