China will soon be one-step closer to its long-standing quest to operate an aircraft carrier. Various reports confirmed that the aircraft carrier Varyag, which China purchased from Ukraine and has been under refurbishment at the port of Dalian, may be set for sea trials this summer—perhaps in July or as early as May (Navy Times, April 13; China Times, April 19). Chinese shipbuilding and military sources have indicated that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has plans to build two new Varyag style carriers, followed by two larger nuclear-powered carriers which could be expanded to four or possibly six vessels (Asia Times, July 23, 2010; Aviation Week, January 5). While much speculation has arisen about the Varyag’s hardware and launch date, the sea trials of China’s first aircraft carrier raise important questions about the extent of its pilot training programs, which are an essential element for determining the effectiveness of its carriers’ strike force.
On September 5, 2008, PLA Daily reported that the Dalian Naval Academy—China’s premier military institution under the command of the navy headquarters—had established a program to recruit pilot cadets. The article revealed the recruitment of 50 pilots, ostensibly selected to receive a four year education in ship-based aircraft flight. It has been widely assumed that this program was for the recruitment and training of the PLAN’s first class of carrier aviators (PLA Daily, September 5, 2008). Some analysts have speculated that if in fact the report is true then the first pilot program of recruiting pilot cadets is an indicator of an important decision made by the PLAN as a final stage of preparation for its highly touted carrier program (Chinamil.com.cn, September 10, 2008).
Another element of China’s carrier pilot training program that is shrouded in mystery is how it is training PLAN aircraft carrier pilots. After all, the Varyag will be China’s first aircraft carrier. To that end, China has been building training centers and actively seeking outside expertise to help train its pilot in carrier naval aviation. There are also reports that China is building several carrier-based fighter pilot systems for training. A couple of these installations, which are reportedly located in Liaoning, Hubei and Shanxi provinces, are designed to simulate the deck of an aircraft carrier landing system. For example, the massive carrier pilot training base at Huludao, Liaoning province appears to be a near duplicate of the design of NITKA (Ukrainian Nazemniy Ispitatelno—Tryenirovochniy Kompleks Aviatsii: Land-based Naval Aviation Testing and Training Complex). The NITKA facilities are state of the art land-based installations for operating one of the Russian-designed carriers that utilize a ski ramp for take-off instead of the steam catapult and arresting cable/tailhook landing system used on U.S. and French aircraft carriers (Taipei Times, February 15). Another ground aircraft carrier fighter pilot simulation training system made of concrete and modeled after the Varyag appeared in the vicinity of Wuhan City, Hubei Province, with an almost identical medium-sized aircraft carrier landing runway and bridge (Russian World Arms trade and Analysis Center, February 9). Other facilities ostensibly for training of carrier personnel and engineering support specialists have been identified in Xian, Shanxi Province (Taipei Times, February 15).
China is also reportedly seeking to train pilots for ship-based aircraft at naval aviation training centers in Ukraine. The center is equipped with state-of-the-art simulators for taking off from angled decks, landing with arresting wires, and emergency response operations (China Review News, April 21). Furthermore, Brazil and China had reached an agreement in 2009 to train personnel from the PLAN in Brazil. In the interview (available in Portuguese), Brazil's Defense Minister Nelson Jobim announced that the two sides reached a training agreement to stage PLAN officers abroad the NAe Sao Paulo, Brazil’s Clemenceau-class aircraft carrier (See “PLAN Officers to Train on Brazilian Aircraft Carrier,” China Brief, June 12, 2009).
There are currently nine navies with aircraft carriers in active service, and the United States, France, Russia and Brazil are the only four naval forces that have operational aircraft carriers capable of launching and recovering conventional aircraft. Reports that appeared in the Chinese press as well as its activities indicated that the PLAN may be planning to use a mix of CATOBAR and STOBAR launch and recovery systems for its carriers, which would explain why Chinese leaders have reached out to both Ukraine and Brazil for carrier aviation training (China Review News, April 21; Defasanet, May 13, 2009).
There remains a long period of training, development and exercises before the carrier becomes operational. It is likely that the Varyag will be used mainly for training purposes for a completely indigenous model. While a single carrier is largely symbolic, nevertheless it underscores the progress that China has made and its ambition to become a global maritime power. The upcoming sea trials for the Varyag will mark China’s ascension in a rare class of naval powers. While China has demonstrated that it is catching up with Western powers in terms of hardware, yet China’s rise as a true naval power is far from assured. Much will depend on the extent to which it is able to educate and train the personnel that will ultimately determine military capabilities. This remains to be seen for now.