Feng at ID highlights two new bits of data on China’s aircraft carrier program. The first is that the Chinese have carried out significant work on the ex-Varyag, the Kuznetsov class carrier that they purchased several years ago and that has been the source of constant speculation on Chinese intentions. The second, and much more interesting, is that the PLAN has apparently arranged to begin training its carrier pilots on board the Sao Paulo, Brazil’s full deck aircraft carrier.
Aircraft carriers represent a huge investment of time and effort. Apart from the carrier itself and the aircraft, a navy needs to assemble a battlegroup capable of protecting the carrier, and needs to master fixed wing big deck carrier operations. This last is exceptionally complicated, and its difficulty is not to be underestimated. Operating a modern aircraft carrier requires a high level of professionalism and expertise on the part of the pilots, the aircrew, and the ship’s regular complement. For example, taking off from and landing on a carrier is much more complicated than similar operations on land. Pilots also have to master a set of navigational skills that will guarantee they can find their carrier under adverse conditions. The maintenance requirements for aircraft at sea are much greater than for aircraft on land, because of the corrosive effect of seawater. Coordinating an air group at sea is difficult, and coordinating take offs and landings such that sorties can be maximized is very difficult indeed. We know all this because it took the United States quite some time to master jet aircraft operations on big deck carriers. Until the Chinese master such operations, they’re looking forward to large numbers of accidents and carriers of limited effectiveness.
Learning such operations takes a long time. One shortcut to learning from scratch is to borrow knowledge from others. The Royal Navy, which has substantially lost the expertise it once had in aircraft carrier operations, is borrowing from both the French and the Americans. US and French advisors are consulting with the RN, and RN officers are learning on board US and French ships. Chinese options for vicarious learning, however, are limited. The US certainly isn’t interested in doing the Chinese any favors. The French might be interested, but their military interaction with China is limited by EU arms export rules. The Russians don’t have a reputation for being very effective in carrier operations, and in any case they’re likely to lack a sense of humor about the Chinese stealing their aircraft.
Enter Brazil, last of the four countries to operate conventional aircraft from carriers. Sao Paulo, formerly the French Foch, operates A-4 Skyhawks. It appears from this interview that the PLAN has arranged with the Brazilian Navy to train some of its pilots and crews on board Sao Paulo. It’s fair to say that this represents a substantial step forward for Chinese naval aviation. This agreement with Brazil will presumably allow the Chinese access to Brazilian naval aviation experts in addition to the carrier itself. This should accelerate the development of Chinese naval aviation by quite a bit.
The normal caveats apply to this; in the very best case scenario China is decades away from being able to challenge the carriers of the USN with its own. Moreover, conflict between China and the United States, or China and its neighbors, is far from inevitable. Still, the PLAN appears to be serious about naval aviation, and it seems to know what it needs to learn. As a final point, unless this is all part of an elaborate charade on the part of the Chinese, it indicates that in spite of whatever methods the PLAN may have developed to attack US carriers, it still believes that it needs its own CVs.