China continues to create a carrier aviation capability and to the consternation of neighbors and the United States, the Chinese are doing it the only way known to work. That is, one step at a time, with persistence and a willingness to learn from mistakes and quickly adapt. There is no fast-track to creating a carrier aviation capability and the Chinese apparently understood that from the beginning.
At the end of 2016, China carried out its first live-fire drills with its only aircraft carrier the Liaoning. This took place off the coast of northern China (the Bohai Sea) near the shipyard and naval base as Dailan. For the first time, J-15 jets took off from the Liaoning armed with anti-ship missiles and fired those missiles at target ships. The Liaoning was also seen operating with its escorts. Together these form a carrier task force remarkably similar to the ones the United States has developed over the last 80 years.
Back in late 2015, there was confirmation that China was indeed building a second aircraft carrier. The design is apparently based on the Liaoning. In other words a 65,000 ton, 305 meters (999 feet) long ship that is actually a modified version of the last Cold War Russian carrier design. China also confirmed that the new carrier would also have the ski jump deck like Liaoning.
The Liaoning spent over a year on sea trials and by early 2016 entered regular service as a training carrier. Since its 2012 commissioning Liaoning has been used for training and getting experience with carrier operations. During that time Liaoning began flight operations in November 2012 and these were such a success that the Chinese built “carrier fighter” J-15 (a Su-27 variant) eventually participated in these carrier operations. In 2013 China confirmed that the Liaoning will primarily be a training carrier but will be capable of combat operations. The Chinese apparently plan to station up to 24 jet fighters and 26 helicopters on the Liaoning and use the ship to train pilots and other specialists for additional carriers. Meanwhile, the Liaoning will also be staffed and equipped as a combat ship as well but it is officially a training carrier and will spend most of its sea time training crews and pilots for the new carriers as well as ship crews for the carriers and their escorts.
Liaoning began as one of the two Kuznetsov class carriers that Russia began building in the 1980s. Originally the Kuznetsovs were to be 90,000 ton nuclear powered ships (the Ulanovsk class), similar to American Nimitz class carriers (complete with steam catapults). Instead, because of the high cost and the complexity of modern (American style) carriers, the Russians were forced to scale back their plans and ended up with 65,000 ton (full load) ships that lacked steam catapults and used a ski jump type flight deck instead. Nuclear power was dropped but the Kuznetsovs were still a formidable design.
The Kuznetsovs normally carry a dozen navalized Su-27s (called Su-33s), 14 Ka-27PL anti-submarine helicopters, two electronic warfare helicopters, and two search and rescue helicopters. But the ship was built to carry as many as 36 Su-33s and sixteen helicopters. The Kuznetsovs carry 2,500 tons of aviation fuel, allowing it to generate 500-1,000 aircraft and helicopter sorties. Crew size is 2,500 (or 3,000 with a full aircraft load). While the original Kuznetsov is in Russian service, the second ship, the Varyag, was launched but not completed and work stopped in 1992. The Chinese bought the unfinished carrier in 1998, towed it to China, and spent over a decade completing it as the Liaoning, which is considered far superior to the original. Russia has never updated Kuznetsov much and this carrier is often an embarrassment because of the lack of upgrades and actual experience at sea.