Canada defence ministry watchful of new Chinese aircraft carrier
Last summer, I spent some time aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, as it patrolled a stretch of the Indian Ocean.
It was a cool assignment, and valuable research for a story about a story about a 21st-century Great Game. Standing on the flight deck, watching fighter jets take off and land in unison, was a testament to technology. The collected knowledge that has allowed the U.S. to assert its place as a dominant sea power was paid for in blood, I was reminded. With each accident, came knowledge.
I saw that several times, as sailors dropped to their hands and knees through the day to search every inch of the flight deck for items as small as a pen cap or paper clip that could be sucked into a jet engine and destroy it.
In November, the Chinese state media reported that two aircraft practiced taking off and landing from the deck of China's first carrier, the Liaoning. The following month, on Dec. 17, 2012, Canada's minister of National Defence was given a briefing about the flight, showing that even though Canada doesn't have its own carrier any more, it's still concerned about who controls the sea's shipping lanes. (Canada's last carrier, HMCS Bonaventure, was decommissioned in 1970.) (Thanks to readers who notified me of this fact.)
Some sections of the unclassified Canadian briefing note was blocked out by censors, including one tantalizing section that begins: "While these drills were the next step in the (Chinese navy's) steady movement towards this capability, there is the possibility that..." The rest of the paragraph is redacted.
The note, obtained by The Star through the Access to Information Act, quotes Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow of the Military Transformations Program at Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Bitzinger says it will be two or three years before China has a credible carrier air wing capability. The main issue will be training pilots and deck crews.
"Dr. Bitzkinger questioned the number of aircraft the Liaoning could hold, given that the ship will also need to deply both airborne early warning & control and search and rescue helicopters. Deck space and layout will be at a premium, since the J-15 (fight jet) will need to run about half the length of the warship at full afterburner for a ramp assisted launch. This would make it challenging, if not impossible, to conduct the simultaneous launch and recovery of aircraft."
Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at The Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead