PLA Navy’s ‘Flashy’ Aircraft Carriers Begin To Flex Muscles Near Taiwan Despite Being ‘Near Useless’ In A War

As Beijing continues to increase pressure on Taiwan with its near-daily military activity near the self-ruled island state, the Chinese Shandong aircraft carrier transited the contentious Taiwan Strait earlier this week, raising tensions in the region.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) said that the Taiwanese military dispatched troops to observe a Chinese naval formation led by the aircraft carrier Shandong as it sailed through the Taiwan Strait on December 11. The Shandong was located while steering west of Taiwan’s median line.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Shandong aircraft carrier group returned to the south via the Taiwan Straits after a month-long operation in the north, Chinese state-owned publication Global Times reported. Shandong is the first fully domestically developed carrier of the Chinese PLA Navy.

One day after the carrier’s passage, experts cited by Global Times speculated that the Shandong probably assisted in pilot training for another PLA aircraft carrier, the north-based Liaoning, which has been undergoing routine maintenance.

It was observed cruising north via the Taiwan Straits after the aircraft carrier had recently finished a record-breaking far-sea exercise in the West Pacific on November 9, the third far-sea drill conducted by this carrier in a year.

A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense, Senior Colonel Zhang Xiaogang, responded to questions on November 16 regarding the Shandong’s northward transit in the Taiwan Straits without going back to its homeport in Hainan Province, South China, by saying that the PLA Navy had organized exercises in relevant waters to improve the systematic combat capabilities of the Shandong aircraft carrier groups.

Shandong’s home port is Hainan Island, southwest of the Taiwan Strait. The carrier frequently crosses the Taiwan Strait on its way to or from maintenance at the shipyard in Dalian, which is situated in the northern region of Liaoning, China. 

In November, the Shandong hosted full-process takeoff and landing exercises for J-15 fighter jets at an undisclosed location, according to a video released by China Central Television. 

Citing media reports, observers said that the PLA Navy aircraft carrier Liaoning, based in the north but undergoing routine maintenance since February, most likely used the Shandong during its one-month northern voyage to train pilots in the Bohai Sea and the Yellow Sea.

Chinese military expert and TV pundit Song Zhongping told Global Times on December 12 that fighter jet takeoff and landing procedures are identical on the Liaoning and the Shandong. So, it is typical for the Shandong to be able to train pilots and crews for the Liaoning during maintenance. According to experts, this has also somewhat highlighted the benefits of having multiple aircraft carriers.

The tall claims made by the Chinese analysts are in direct contrast to the efficacy of Chinese aircraft carriers. Experts believe the PLA Navy’s carriers pose no significant threat to Taiwan, the US, or Washington’s regional allies.

Chinese Carriers No Big Deal

China currently has three aircraft carriers. Liaoning, the first carrier, is an antiquated Soviet asset, whereas the Shandong and Fujian have been locally constructed. With the Fujian still awaiting sea trials, the PLA-N is down to just two operational aircraft carriers out of these three currently.

As demonstrated by its naval assets, including cutting-edge cruisers, Beijing’s growing military might has concerned the United States and its allies. However, according to six defense analysts and four military attachés familiar with regional naval deployments, China could need more than a decade to develop a credible carrier threat outside its borders.

Rather than being a valuable tool in a potential conflict with the United States over Taiwan, the attachés and analysts told Reuters earlier this year that China’s carriers are more of a propaganda piece. They also questioned whether China could defend them in longer-range operations into the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Several military specialists stated that Chinese carriers were still in training mode despite the favorable media attention they had received. For instance, some attachés and experts claim that night and lousy weather landings, crucial to regular offshore carrier operations, are still uncommon.

According to several specialists, the People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N) has not yet mastered protective screening operations, particularly anti-submarine warfare, leaving China’s carriers vulnerable to missile and submarine assaults in the event of a conflict.

Furthermore, Western military analysts have frequently mentioned that China uses the J-15 as their carrier aircraft, which was modeled after and reverse-engineered from a Soviet carrier jet and is infamous for mishaps and disasters.

J-15s Onboard Shandong
J-15s Onboard Shandong

It has been reported that the PLA-N is facing a pilot shortage to operate from the three aircraft carriers due to China amending the regulations for the induction of naval aviation cadets. Women and graduates who are not in the military are now eligible.

Experts predict that even though China has been working hard to upgrade and bolster its aircraft carriers, it will take some time for China to catch up to its competitors in carrier operations. So, the utility of aircraft carriers against a potential conflict may be minimal.

Chinese analysts somewhat concurred with this analysis. They explained that the Taiwan Straits is simply the shortest route that connects southern and northern waters off the Chinese coast. In the unlikely event of a conflict, the Taiwan Strait is too narrow for aircraft carriers to play any significant role. 

However, they also emphasized that the Taiwanese Defense Ministry is sure to be unsettled and nervous about its presence or transit in the Taiwan Strait.