Naval Air: February 18, 2004


There is no evidence that dedicated air groups are forming for the new PLAN (Peoples Liberation Army Navy) Project 9935 carriers.  At the same time, all PLAN fixed wing fighter and attack pilots have been required to carrier qualify on a mock up of the flight deck of Australian carrier HMAS Melbourne. Given this mock up is at a PLAAF (Peoples Liberation Army Air Force) base, it may be that PLAAF pilots also have been practicing deck landings. The investment in the carrier project also involved building maintenance facilities, purchase of foreign aircraft carriers for study and the purchase of foreign aircraft carrier designs from Spain and Russia. These investments, combined with the reported laying down of actual hulls, combine with the lack of newly-formed air groups for the ships to imply that existing air units will be assigned to them.

In this context, the description of an air group for the new carriers is an entirely operational concept. Actual aircraft compliment will be determined by mission requirements and availability. But since availability is in the context of the fleet, as reinforced by other fleets and even by the air force or army aviation corps, it should result in a much greater likelihood even a large mission requirement can be met. Further, the ability to operate on a sustained basis should be much greater than would be possible for any air group dedicated to the ship. 

It is probably useful to understand the direction in which Chinese air force organizations are moving. Aircraft are organized by types, with fixed wing combat aircraft mainly assigned to air divisions, while rotary wing and specialized fixed wing machines are assigned to independent squadrons. For fighter/attack types, air divisions are typically subdivided into two (formerly three) air regiments, which is the operational unit. Each regiment has two (formerly three or four) flying units with a nominal compliment of 10 aircraft, and a maintenance unit which actually owns all the aircraft of the regiment. In practice, a flying unit will operate 2, 4 or 8 aircraft, as required by a mission. Because the flying unit has 30-50 percent more pilots more than its nominal size requires, it is even theoretically possible that a 12 aircraft mission could be flown. PLAAF regiments also include a training unit which operates dissimilar as well as similar machines, including turbo-prop trainers on which unlimited flying is permitted. The PLAN appears to have concentrated training assets in a single air division, and it is not clear if there is also a training unit in each regiment. But in both cases, navy and air force fighter/strike air divisions with newer combat aircraft operate two air regiments each of which has two flying units (squadrons). A normal full scale regimental strike would involve up to 16 aircraft. This is the practical limit in the PLAN, because often the regiment only has 18 machines. But PLAAF regiments have 24 machines, so strikes of 20 or 24 aircraft are theoretically possible, especially on initial missions in any conflict. Helicopters tend to operate singly or in small detachments, as required.

Project 9935 ships appear designed to facilitate operations by two flying units simultaneously, with up to six helicopters (fueled and armed) in deck park in addition. The helicopter deck park is forward of the island structure. Helicopters in this location are stowed with rotors folded aft. The ships have the ability to have two fighters in position for take off runs up the angled deck plus four aircraft parked beside the long island structure (photographic evaluation of Adm. Kuznetzov operations during evaluation operations with Chinese and Indian observers). There is sufficient deck for up to four additional machines aft of the island. At the same time, a different flying unit would have access to the angled flight deck, and its catapult. If operated in this mode, both elevators are unavailable for use, being used as additional deck park space. More normally, one flying unit, plus some helicopters, might be operating. Apparently it is normal to use only the aft elevator, as trucks or helicopters normally are parked on the forward one. Even so, it is apparent a single Project 9935 ship could have elements of  two regiments embarked, one on the flight deck, one on the hanger deck. As described above, a regimental strike would normally involve up to 16 aircraft.

A more typical operational aircraft compliment would probably involve a single regiment of fighter/attack aircraft. This would typically be 8 or 16 aircraft, depending on the mission requirement. One also would expect a compliment of 4-8 ASW helicopters, a detachment of 2 SAR (Sea Air Rescue) helicopters and a detachment of 2 AEW (Airborne Early Warning) helicopters. If the newest aircraft available to the Navy were assigned, one would expect the jets to be a carrier variant of the Su-30 (two batches of 20 ordered in 2003 for the PLAN) plus variants of the Ka-28 Helix helicopter. If older aircraft are operated, one might encounter J-6 (MiG-19), J-7 (MiG-21) or J-8 fighters (two engine mod of MiG-21), JH-7 (Chinese design) or Q-5 (mod MiG-19) attack aircraft, and Z-8 (Super Frelon) or Z-9 (Dauphin) helicopters. If Army Aviation Corps helicopters were embarked, the most likely would include Mi-181 transports and the attack variant of the Z-9. 

PLAN literature concludes that it takes 8 to 10 cruise missile hits to disable a US CVN (nuclear powered carrier). At the same time, they require an average of 4 cruise missile hits on half the escorts of the enemy battle group. To achieve this, they estimate 70 to 100 cruise missiles should be launched on three or more threat axis. If a carrier were to participate in such an attack, it and its escorts would launch 24-40 cruise missiles as one component while an air regiment would deliver about 32 cruise missiles on another axis. The remainder would have to come from surface action groups and submarines. It is very difficult to coordinate launching such multiple attacks simultaneously. The critical issue is detecting and tracking the enemy target task force. If this can be achieved, probably by satellite or MR aircraft, and if all elements of the attacking force could reach firing position before being engaged, this (Russian) attack concept is potentially effective. --Sid Trevethan




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