Double Trouble! China’s Liaoning Aircraft Is Coming Back With Upgrades To Work With Shandong As PLA-N Asserts Power

Amid rising regional tensions, China’s oldest aircraft carrier ‘Liaoning’ is likely to come back with the ongoing maintenance work on the carrier, now in its final stages.

The aircraft carrier is known to have emerged from the dry dock, with analysts predicting on October 11 that the vessel would return to active service with enhanced operational capabilities, likely before the end of this year, Chinese state-controlled publication Global Times reported.

The aircraft carrier, which is berthed by a pier at the Dalian Shipyard in the Liaoning Province of Northeast China, has just begun repainting its flight deck and installing relevant equipment as its maintenance nears completion, revealed the news website on October 10.

The carrier is anticipated to start its engines and make a test voyage after completing the painting of the flight deck, which will probably take a month or so. The Liaoning would return to the seas seven months after arriving at the dockyard in February.

Earlier this year, Lu Qiangqiang, an executive officer on Liaoning aircraft carrier, told CGTN in the documentary ‘Generation Blue Water’ that “Liaoning is undertaking a significant equipment upgrade to enhance its overall capabilities.”

The report on the Chinese website stated that the ship left the dry dock just before the beginning of October looking brand-new with all of its radar and ship-borne weaponry restored after having completed around half a year’s worth of maintenance work in the dock.

However, the report said no significant modifications to the carrier’s appearance were made. This was first revealed when images of the carrier from when it left the dockyard emerged on social media. On October 9, Chinese military watcher Rupprecht Deino analyzed satellite images and concluded that the carrier received orange-colored primer coverings on the ski jump.

When the photos were shared on social media, some military analysts pointed out that there were likely no significant changes and that the bridge of the carrier and sensors were possibly not changed. However, the EurAsian Times could not independently confirm these observations and claims.

The Liaoning was the new name given by China to the original Ukrainian carrier of Soviet origin known as Varyag. The Liaoning was modified to function as a combat-ready platform when it entered service in 2012 and has been venturing into far seas and projecting power in recent years.

A Beijing-based military expert told Global Times that to improve the PLA Navy’s carrier operation capabilities and defend national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and development interests; the Liaoning will alternately participate in combat alert missions and far sea exercises along with the nation’s second aircraft carrier, the Shandong.

In addition, a self-proclaimed Chinese propaganda account on Platform X, that goes by the name Zhao DaShuai, said: “China will enter the 3-carrier era when Carrier Fujian with its electromagnetic catapults is capable of complex missions, from ground attack to anti-ship to CAP. Liaoning & Shandong, when equipped with J-35 stealth fighters, will provide the fleet with a formidable air patrol umbrella.”

In June 2022, China launched its third aircraft carrier, the electromagnetic catapult-equipped Fujian. Experts believe the new and more powerful carrier will conduct its first test flight by the end of 2023.

Liaoning Is A Chinese Work Horse

The Liaoning aircraft carrier of the PLA Navy has become its crusader into the far seas. In December last year, China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning, escorted by a record number of Type 055 destroyers, sailed via the Miyako Strait and reached the West Pacific for routine operations.

Days after it first crossed the Miyako Strait and entered the West Pacific for routine training, the Liaoning aircraft carrier group was spotted sailing close to Guam, a major US military outpost in the Pacific.

Guam is a frontline US territory in the Pacific and will act as a staging ground in case of a conflict between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific region. The US military bases in Guam host strategic bombers and nuclear-powered submarines.

Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning - Wikipedia
Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning – Wikipedia

China considers the island of Guam as a nodal point in the second island chain, which is why this incident became a talking point among military officials and analysts. Some Chinese experts at the time noted that the Liaoning’s carrier group sailing close to Guam could have a tactical purpose in the broader scheme of things and a potential conflict.

In January this year, the Liaoning aircraft carrier group returned from its training exercises in the West Pacific, where it reportedly set new records for aircraft sortie rates, the number of vessels included in the carrier group, and areas covered.

A press release from Japan noted that on December 16 last year, Chinese warships crossed the Miyako Strait into the West Pacific and conducted drills in the waters east of Taiwan, south of Japan, and west of Guam before leaving the area.

According to the Japan MoD, the aircraft carrier Liaoning hosted roughly 320 fighter jet and helicopter takeoff and landing operations during training last December. With almost 300 aircraft sorties in about 20 days, this rapid sortie pace broke the Liaoning’s drills in the West Pacific in May 2022.

Despite being the oldest in the Chinese arsenal, the Liaoning is also the most significant and reliable aircraft carrier entrusted with newer and more daring roles in the recent past, especially in the wake of tensions with the United States and its regional allies.

The aircraft carrier’s return to active duty coincides with increased tensions in the region, with the United States augmenting its military presence by collaborating with regional allies who remain locked in tensions with China over sovereignty issues.