A symbol of Chinese prestige and naval prowess, the Liaoning aircraft carrier appears to have certain operational limitations, according to a US Navy commander.
These revelations included details of an image of the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning taken from the USS Mustin guided missile destroyer during a close encounter in the disputed South China Sea last year.
While recounting the incident, Vice Admiral Roy Kitchener, the commander of US naval surface forces, claimed the Chinese aircraft carrier was subject to “operating restrictions”. The USS Mustin followed the Liaoning and was able to photograph and observe the carrier, he claimed.
He revealed at the Surface Navy Association’s annual conference on Tuesday that American crew members “realized that at some point all the Chinese escorts had kind of backed off” because “there were restrictions operations they had around the aircraft carrier”.
“The USS Mustin didn’t have those (restrictions),” he said. “They kept going, found a good station and sat next door taking pictures and doing other things for quite a while.”
The captain and deputy commander of the USS Mustin sat side by side in the blink of an eye, watching Liaoning, which was only a few miles away. The photo was widely circulated around the world and seen as a message to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
While the episode was decisive for American sailors, it infuriated China, which responded vehemently. Chinese authorities called the activities “very vile” and accused the United States of threatening Chinese ships and troops.
The ease with which US Navy personnel were able to photograph Chinese aircraft carriers was a key point of discussion last year. Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at the Taiwan Naval Academy in Kaohsiung, was quoted by SCMP as saying, “Liaoning may have been busy with a complicated exercise, allowing US officers to take pictures .
Meanwhile, Song Zhongping, a former Chinese military instructor, argued that the PLA followed pre-planned travel routines, but the operational parameters for US crews were more flexible.
“It is very common for warships to sail so close for parallel surveillance during unexpected encounters on the high seas,” Lu said. “But it is rare for the captain and his deputy to sit together, which shows that Liaoning gave the USS Mustin plenty of time to take the picture due to its operating restrictions.”
Last year, the photo was chosen for a Chinese navy photo gallery to commemorate the navy’s 72nd anniversary. This underscored American concern over China’s rise, Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming told SCMP.
“When we go on operations now, whether it’s on the east coast or the west coast, the Black Sea, the South China Sea, we’re there one-on-one with our adversaries,” Kitchener said. “They’re there. They’re representing. And we’re managing the risk, and our sailors are getting really good. The US Navy is used to working alongside other troops, but encounters with Chinese naval troops have intensified in recent years so that tensions between the two nations have escalated.
Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning
Liaoning, a Chinese Type 001 aircraft carrier deployed in 2012, is PLAN’s first surface carrier. The ship was renamed Varyag in 1990.
It was originally designed for the Soviet Navy as a “large aircraft-carrying cruiser”. In 1998, a Chinese tour operator purchased the incomplete hull, and three years later the ship was towed from Ukraine to China, where it underwent a major hull, radar and electronics upgrade.
Liaoning’s air wing marks a substantial step forward in PLAN air capabilities, although it, like the carrier itself, has limitations. The aircraft aboard Liaoning are capable and modern, although largely limited by the ship’s aircraft launch mechanism.
The carrier’s air wing includes 24 Shenyang J-15 fighters, six Changhe Z-18F anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters, four Changhe Z-18J airborne early warning helicopters and two Harbin rescue helicopters. Z-9C.
This combination of aircraft is in line with Soviet aircraft carrier doctrine, which calls for providing support to nuclear submarines, large surface fighters and land attack bombers to be supported by aircraft carriers.
The Liaoning Air Force suffers from a lack of manpower training and experience compared to other countries. In November 2012, pilots from Chinese aircraft carriers began training aboard the ship, and PLAN qualified its first air wing of domestically trained J-15 pilots in 2015.