China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is exploring ways of streamlining the training and increasing the number of fast jet pilots to keep pace with the country’s growing number of aircraft carriers, the state-owned Global Times newspaper reported on 7 January.
Quoting Song Zhong, a Chinese military commentator, the report anticipated a future requirement for 400 carrier-trained pilots to support “at least four carriers”, which China is expected to roll out “in the near future”.
Speculation is growing that the PLAN’s second carrier, which was launched in April 2017, will commence sea trials in late February and may enter service in 2019; and that the construction of modules for the third carrier, which is expected to be a conventional flat top with catapults, has been underway at the Jiangnan Changxingdao shipyard for several months, although no satellite images or photographs have yet confirmed this.
Analysis published by Henri Kenhmann on the East Pendulum website linked pilot carrier certification with the recurring activities of the PLAN's Liaoning aircraft carrier in the Bohai Sea. Kenhmann, an experienced observer of Chinese military developments, concluded that seven batches of pilots – numbering between 29 and 36 pilots in total – likely achieved certification for carrier operations by the end of 2017.
This just about satisfies the requirement to crew an embarked air wing of 24 Shenyang J-15 fighters on Liaoning . At the current rate, however, Kenhmann forecasts shortfalls against the requirement if the second carrier becomes operational around 2019 and the third around 2023.
While the Global Times report implies that many of the current cadre of carrier pilots have been drawn from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), the PLAN Air Force now aims to directly recruit and train its pilots.
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