Chinese navy trains top pilots to command aircraft carrier fleet

  • The best pilots from Chinese carrier-borne squadrons are being sent to a naval academy for warship training to meet an “urgent need” for commanders.
  • They had to pass more than 10 assessments — from political thought to psychological testing — before they could join the program.
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The Chinese navy is training fighter pilots experienced in carrier-borne operations to command and manage its warships as it seeks to expand its global naval power.

Its best pilots from carrier-borne squadrons — including some qualified to fly fighter jets during both daytime and at night — were sent to a naval academy for warship combat and command training late last month, PLA Daily reported on Monday.

It did not say how many pilots had been selected, but all of them were required to pass more than 10 assessments — ranging from political thought to psychological testing — before they could join the training programme, the official People’s Liberation Army newspaper said.

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the programme would focus on command and control skills for air and sea operations, and some of the pilots would ultimately be selected to command China’s new aircraft carrier strike groups.

J-15s aboard the Liaoning

J-15s aboard the Liaoning.
AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

As part of its ambition to build a powerful blue-water navy that can operate globally, China plans to have four aircraft carriers in service by 2035. Its second aircraft carrier — the first built in China, known as the Type 001A — is undergoing sea trials and is expected to be operational by the end of this year.

Work on the more modern Type 002 carrier started two years ago, and a naval source told the South China Morning Post that construction of a second Type 002 vessel could begin as early as 2021. But they will need suitable carrier pilots to take command.

“It’s quite an urgent need for the Chinese navy to have carrier group commanders — like its Western counterparts do — who are capable of commanding different warships and aircraft in modern joint-operation combat situations,” Li said.

“Aircraft carrier strike groups are supposed to sail on the high seas and into unfamiliar territory, so aside from having a background as naval aviators, all commanding officers should have a broad set of skills and knowledge — from foreign languages and international maritime law to air and sea operations — to help them make good decisions,” he said.

Other navies, such as the United States Navy, require more experience for the role — commanding officers of US aircraft carriers must be former naval aviators as well as former captains of different types of warships.

For example, Captain Pat “Fin” Hannifin, commanding officer of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, has over 2,800 flight hours in 33 different aircraft under his belt. He was also executive officer on another aircraft carrier and commander of an amphibious transport dock.

J-15 fighters from China's Liaoning aircraft carrier conduct a drill in an area of South China Sea, January 2, 2017.

J-15 fighters aboard China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier conduct a drill in the South China Sea, January 2, 2017.

Rear Admiral Li Xiaoyan, the first captain of China’s only active aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was a pilot with no experience on carrier-borne aircraft, though he did have experience on a destroyer and frigates. He was replaced by Zhang Zheng just days after the Liaoning formally joined the PLA Navy in 2012, and later by Liu Zhe – neither of whom had naval aviator backgrounds.

Li Xiaoyan was one of the first group of 10 pilots selected for a training programme designed specifically for China’s future aircraft carriers back in 1987. But the whole aircraft carrier plan was suspended in 1998 by premier Zhu Rongji for political and economic reasons, according to China’s Carrier, a book published by China Development Press.

Naval expert Li Jie said the Chinese navy now had to catch up in terms of training pilots, and especially commanding officers, for its aircraft carriers.

“China resumed the aircraft carrier plan and in 2004 started refitting the hull of the Varyag. But after that first group of pilots was trained in 1987, there was no formal training in air and sea operations because there was no aircraft carrier training platform until 2012,” Li said, referring to the unfinished Admiral Kuznetsov-class vessel China bought from Ukraine in 1998, which became the Liaoning.

He said the latest training programme for commanding officers was a continuation of the one that began more than 30 years ago.

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