The Liaoning, the People’s Liberation Army’s sole aircraft carrier, may still be mocked by some as a “second-hand” vessel given the 10 years of work Beijing put into refitting a Soviet-built hulk before its commission with the Chinese navy in 2012.

The ensuing years have seen the 55,000-ton carrier deployed in China’s coastal waters, serving as a giant training ship for PLA aviators and seamen on secondment missions.

Now the Chinese carrier may have graduated to assuming a new, leading role in Beijing’s imperative to form a blue-water navy.

Chinese media are trumpeting that, following its six-month mid-life refit at the Dalian Shipyard, the Liaoning has been transformed into a “combat-ready” sea-going airbase loaded with indigenous technologies.

The Liaoning carrier was the lead ship of the fanfare naval parade in the Yellow Sea marking the Chinese Navy’s 70th anniversary on Tuesday. Photo: Xinhua
China's Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet. Photo: Reuters
China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet. Photo: Reuters

The Liaoning has now been equipped with upgraded arresting cables made of new composite materials for when the J-15 carrier-based fighters return to its deck, and an additional arresting net stand has been installed on the periphery of the flight deck to halt a plane in the event of a failed arrested landing, according to China Central Television.

The PLA engineers also made tweaks to its steam turbines and propulsion system, and the carrier’s anti-jamming capabilities were upgraded.

On top of these improvements, previous reports speculated that the PLA could have experimented with the installation of prototype electromagnetic catapults on the Liaoning. This might turn an old vessel built in Soviet Ukraine into a test bed for cutting-edge technologies to boost the speed and payloads of fighters operating from its flight deck.

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

Despite the refit, the vessel still depends on a steam propulsion powerplant and continues to operate with a performance-limiting bow ramp on its deck, which means the Liaoning is unlikely to venture far from Chinese shores or to send her lightly-loaded J-15 fighters into serious combat. Furthermore, having been first laid down in the mid 1980s, the Liaoning could normally be expected to be mothballed within the next decade.

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