By Guo Yuandan and Ma Jun
An online photo on May 27 revealed that China's first aircraft carrier Liaoning (Hull 16) returned to the Dalian Shipyard to join the first home-made aircraft carrier already docked there. China's two aircraft carriers had a historical "rendezvous".
The photo drew extensive attention throughout China. Chinese military expert Song Zhongping told the reporter on May 27 that it is rare for the two carriers to appear at the shipyard at the same time and it was a special situation this time.
The homemade aircraft carrier had just returned from a sea trial when Liaoning(Hull 16) happened to return to the shipyard for repair and maintenance, thus creating the historical moment. After the homemade carrier is officially commissioned in the future, it will undertake its own duties, so it is highly improbable that the two carriers will meet at the Dalian Shipyard again.
The aircraft carrier Liaoning (Hull 16) sailed back to the Dalian Shipyard for a four-month routine maintenance in the middle of 2014, after which it carried out training across large sea areas, so another comprehensive "body check" was normal and necessary.
Many netizens hailed the arrival of the "age of double carriers", but Chinese expert Li Jie said that such an age should be characterized by the carriers' combat capabilities. At present, the homemade carrier only has a symbolic meaning. Even when it's commissioned to the Navy, it needs to go through equipment commissioning and personnel adaptation for a long time.
According to Song Zhongping, the simultaneous appearance of the two aircraft carriers means China is getting closer to the double-carrier age. "It is just a beginning. We will see more aircraft carriers together in the future."
It will be some time before the homemade aircraft carrier forms combat capability, but the interviewed experts all believed the process will be largely shortened thanks to the sound foundation laid by Liaoning.
Shi Hong, executive editor-in-chief of Shipborne Weapons magazine, said that the carrier Liaoning undertakes the training for a large number of personnel, which greatly shortens the time necessary for new carriers to be combat ready.
Official media reported that carrier-borne aircraft numbers starting with "2" appeared in a Liaoning training session in April, which may mean that the aircraft destined for the homemade aircraft carrier have already started training on Liaoning.
He also said that the carrier Liaoning has created the model of a carrier battle group, according to which corresponding vessels can be dispatched to form a carrier battle group with combat capability within a very short time. Therefore, "while it took six years for the carrier Liaoning to form combat capability after it was delivered to the PLA Navy, the first homemade aircraft carrier may only need two years or so.”
How will the two aircraft carriers change the PLA Navy in the future?
Li Jie said that actually one third of an aircraft carrier's service life is spent in the shipyard because repair, maintenance and upgrade take a lot of time, so we have to have two carriers to make sure there is always one carrier at sea.
He also said the two carriers provide the PLA Navy with different tactical options. Either the two carriers can form a large battle group together or they each lead a battle group and serve in different strategic directions, for instance, one in the South China Sea and the other in the West Pacific.
But Li Jie stressed that the "double-carrier age" only means the nation's strategic projection capability is enhanced, but the two carriers will seldom operate together except in an extremely grave situation.
All the experts mentioned that the US has the richest experience in multi-carrier operation. Considering the experience of the American Navy, the "double-carrier age" will bring both benefits and new challenges.
Shi Hong gave an example to explain that double-carrier operation isn't the simple combination of two carrier battle groups. If one carrier in the combined battle group is responsible for attack and the other focuses on defense, the tactics will definitely be different from those for a single aircraft carrier, so we have to explore anew. Meanwhile, more training has to be carried out as to what formation the escort vessels should adopt and how great a distance from each other they should maintain.
In addition to changes in the combat system, the double carriers also pose new requirements to the PLA Navy in logistics support, replenishment and maintenance, as well as personnel rotation as the war-ready tasks become long-term operations, according to Li Jie.
How to keep up efficient rotation of aircraft carriers while mitigating the pressure on logistics and troops on vessels is a difficulty that the American Navy is also trying to solve, Li Jie added.
Disclaimer: The author is Guo Yuandan and Ma Jun, reporters with the Global Times. The article is translated from Chinese into English by the China Military online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article are those of the authors from the Global Times and do not reflect the views of eng.chinamil.com.cn. Chinamil.com.cn does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. If the article carries photographs or images, we do not vouch for their authenticity.