A shortage of naval pilots is holding back Beijing’s ambitions to develop a truly combat-ready fleet, military analysts have said.
China officially commissioned its second aircraft carrier the Shandong last week, which means it will need at least 70 pilots, along with more supporting flight officers.
However, plans to further expand its fleet to five or six carriers – as well as the more advanced technology that will be used on these vessels – mean the need to train more pilots will become more urgent in the future.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has initiated a sweeping modernisation drive across all branches of the People’s Liberation Army and said “the need to build up a strong navy has never been more pressing”.
But Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said there was a bottleneck in the recruitment and training of naval pilots.
“The implications of carrier-borne aviation are still relatively unfamiliar to the PLA, especially when there’s an urge to scale up training tempo and recruitment in order to fulfil the top directives of building a viable carrier programme,” he said.
China’s training programme for all military pilots is still developing – particularly when it comes to the naval aviation arm, which was only founded in May 2013.
China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was commissioned in September 2012, but the first successful fighter landing on the ship did not happen until two months later.
The first successful night landing was not reported by state media until May 2018, almost four years later.
It appears to have taken even longer to fully train helicopter pilots, with the first successful day landing taking place in November 2018, according to China’s Naval Aviation University, and the first night landing in June this year.
The training programme has also been marred by a string of fatal accidents along the way, although Koh said these had been unreported to avoid deterring prospective recruits.
Days after China marked the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic with a huge military parade in Beijing on October 1, three airmen were killed when a transport helicopter crashed in central Henan province.
Just eight days later there was another crash on the Tibetan Plateau, where a J-10 fighter jet on a low-altitude flying drill crashed into a mountain. The pilot was reported to have survived.
“The attrition rate of carrier-borne pilot training, including those who might have been injured or killed in the line of duty, isn’t that well publicised by the PLA,” said Koh.
Li Jie, another Beijing-based military expert, said although the navy is short of pilots now, the problem could be solved within two to three years.
“The insufficient number of carrier-borne warplanes and the substantial training needed for a qualified naval pilot are the two main reasons why China is so short of pilots now. But as China places more and more emphasis on the education and training of the pilots, the problem will be gradually ironed out, ” said Li.
The Naval Aviation University, which is responsible for the training of future naval pilots, has been working with three of the country’s leading universities – Peking, Tsinghua and Beihang – to identify and recruit future pilots.
The authorities have also set up Naval Aviation Experimental Classes in high schools across the country. Each class recruits 50 students, who enjoy a national subsidy and will be put in a priority list to be admitted as a naval pilot.