U.S. Stealth Fighters Head to Japan as China’s Carrier Creeps Up on Taiwan
F-35s versus flattop ‘Liaoning’ in the Western Pacific
by TOM DEMERLY
The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning has crossed the politically-sensitive Taiwanese Air Defense Identification Zone along with several escort ships. Liaoning sailed up the west side of the median line of the strait separating the Chinese mainland from Taiwan.
The Chinese government issued a statement claiming Liaoning and her support vessels were conducting drills to test weapons and equipment in the disputed South China Sea — and that these operations are in compliance with international law.
In response, Taiwan dispatched patrol and fighter aircraft to monitor the passage of the Liaoning group. Coincidentally, the U.S. Marine Corps has sent F-35B stealth fighters to Japan at around the same time as Liaoning’s close pass.
The Taipei Times reported a similar incident involving Liaoning on Dec. 27, 2016. Residents of the city of Hualien photographed Taiwanese F-16 fighters taking off in response to the presence of Liaoning in nearby waters.
Reports also indicate that Taiwan’s E-2K Hawkeye radar-early-warning planes and P-3 Orion patrollers were dispatched to the area to maintain surveillance. These same aircraft likely responded to Liaoning’s more recent passage.
Meanwhile on Jan. 9, 2017, the U.S. Marines deployed 10 F-35B stealth fighters from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni on Honshu Island in Japan. The squadron is part of the 3rd Marine Air Wing from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona.
Although the deployment to Iwakuni is not a direct U.S. response to escalating tensions in the region, the deployment of the most advanced American aircraft does have symbolic value in light of China’s own symbolic naval moves.
Iwakuni is approximately 1,080 nautical miles northeast of central Taiwan. The range of the F-35 is generically reported as 1,200 nautical miles, with a stated combat radius of 625 nautical miles without aerial refueling. The F-35s could, in theory, reach Liaoning’s favorite haunt off Taiwan.
The Marines’ F-35B jump-jet variant of the stealth fighter is intended for shipboard operations and was recently tested on board the amphibious assault ship USS America that is currently training off the U.S. west coast for future deployments to the Western Pacific and elsewhere.
Liaoning’s journey from shipyard to the China Seas was a long one. She started life as Riga, a Soviet navy Kuznetsov-class carrier. Launched in late 1988, she was Russia’s largest-ever warship. Ukraine renamed her Varyag after assuming control of the vessel as the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1990. China purchased Varyag in 1998, initially planning to repurpose the ship as a floating casino — or claiming to want to so, at least.
Beijing eventually elected to deploy ex-Riga, ex-Varyag as a “training” aircraft carrier. She got her current name in 2012.
Construction is well underway on China’s second aircraft carrier, the Type 001A. The new flattop is an indigenous Chinese design that retains Liaoning’s ski-jump-style aircraft launch technique — as opposed to the steam catapults U.S. carriers use.
That only one of these new Chinese-engineered carriers is under construction suggests that China may be developing another, more advanced aviation vessel. Additionally, intelligence indicates the Chinese are working on their own catapult launch system.
Chinese media suggest that Liaoning can accommodate up to 36 aircraft. They include as many as 24 Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark fighters — copies of Russia’s Su-33 — that are reportedly restricted from carrying heavy weapons owing to the limitations of the ski-launch method.
If the reports are accurate, the J-15s are possibly limited to the air-superiority role while flying from Liaoning.
The balance of the ship’s air wing includes Changhe Z-18F anti-submarine patrol helicopters and the “J” variant of the same helicopter configured for airborne early warning.
Liaoning reportedly also carries two smaller Harbin Z-9C helicopters for rescue operations — an important role given the tragic experience of Russia’s own aircraft carrier during operations off Syria.
Given the aircraft on board, Liaoning can do little more than project air-defense patrols. Her aircraft possess little or no strike or anti-ship capability. And, unlike America’s own new planes in the region, they’re not stealthy.
Originally published at theaviationist.com on January 12, 2017.