The Liaoning, the People’s Liberation Army’s ageing aircraft carrier that is already seen as out of date compared with advanced modern flattops, could normally be expected to be mothballed within the next decade.

Yet the Soviet-built vessel with the curled-up bow laid down in 1985 may be given a new lease of life that would defer looming retirement. This is because the Chinese Navy could be planning to use the carrier for trials of Chinese-made electromagnetic catapults, to realize a speedier way to launch fighters with a greater weapons payload and more fuel from a seagoing airbase.

It is no secret that China has been pouring talent and money into developing catapults that employ linear induction motors to launch fighters. It is the consensus among analysts that a slew of technical breakthroughs over the years have shot the PLA into the same league as the US Navy in the operation of functioning shipborne electromagnetic catapult systems.

Yet contrary to previous views that prototypes would only be installed on the nation’s as-yet incomplete third career, the Type 002, latest reports suggest that the Liaoning could be enlisted as China’s first test bed for electromagnetic technologies.

A Chinese J-15 fighter jet lands on the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during military drills. Photo: AFP
A Chinese J-15 fighter jet lands on the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during military drills. Photo: AFP

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post even speculated that the Liaoning could do away with its distinctive ski-jump flight deck to make room for the new catapults. The carrier, refurbished and commissioned by the PLA in 2012 after being out of service in the Black Sea for a decade following the demise of the Soviet Union, recently underwent a nine-month refit at the Dalian Shipyard.

The Liaoning also has a domestically built, lookalike sister ship, known only as the Type 001A, that is tipped to enter service as soon as this year.

Citing an anonymous retired PLA Navy officer as well as Chinese military observers, the broadsheet reported that Beijing was weighing up a plan to fit the Liaoning’s 14-degree deck with electromagnetic catapults, after PLA shipbuilders and technicians have cracked a plethora of compatibility issues.

The rationale of re-purposing the Liaoning for electromagnetic catapults is for the “crash training” of much-needed pilots. The PLA is facing a talent crunch in its drive to form elite, carrier-based fighter squadrons. Hence a possible plan that is in line with the Liaoning’s main mission thrust: a platform, first and foremost, for training and honing skills.

A professional carrier-based pilot needs no fewer than 10,000 hours, or four years, of on-ground and on-board training. Current PLA pilot training is limited to a ground-based simulated electromagnetic launch system at a military facility near Bohai Bay in northern China, according to Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenmin.

However, before a final decision is made, Beijing will also have to factor in the huge costs and the long off-mission period that the plan may entail, especially just after the Liaoning has been upgraded.

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