‘Landing on a Postage Stamp in the Dark’: China’s Navy Trains for Nighttime Operations with Carrier Based Aircraft

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has released footage of pilots training for nighttime landings on aircraft carriers, which are considered some of the most difficult operations due to the darkness which adds to the difficulty of landing on a small moving runway. Such landings have been compared by U.S. Navy pilots to landing on a postage stamp in the dark. The PLA Navy is only the fifth in the world known to have carried out such operations. 

According to Chinese military expert Yin Zhuo, quoted by state media outlet CCTV, the difficulty of night landings has meant that under 60 percent of French and US navy pilots were qualified to conduct them - despite how long these countries have been using aircraft carriers. Yin highlighted that night landings played a vital role in allowing carrier groups mounting surprise attacks, as well as allowing fighters to return from long distance operations conducted in the afternoon. The ability to perform night landings can thus significantly improve the versatility of an aircraft carrier - and by extension of the entire carrier group - and is considered a worthwhile pursuit despite being considered the very hardest type of operation for naval pilots. 

China currently deploys two aircraft carriers with fixed-wing fighters, the Liaoning and Shandong, which both displace approximately 70,000 tons and deploy modern J-15 heavyweight fighters optimized for air to air and anti-shipping missions. 

New supercarriers are currently under construction and benefit from electromagnetic catapult launch systems and much larger decks to accommodate more aircraft and more diverse air wings. The supercarrier air wings are also expected to rely on the J-15 - albeit a newer variant with ‘4++ generation’ capabilities thought to be called J-15B. The possibility of deploying specialized vertical landing capable fighters from China’s Type 075 Class assault carriers, of which three have been launched, has also been considered. 

Speaking regarding the importance of a nighttime landing capability, Beijing-based military analyst Song Zhongping stated: “The possibility of conducting combat missions at night in modern warfare grows higher. Because night attacks are so sudden it is necessary to strengthen training so that personnel can fly in all kinds of weather and at all times of the day.” He emphasized that training for aviation cadets was a high priority for the PLA, with the certification process showing that a comprehensive training system had been established. “To establish a complete coaching system requires the instructors to have the capability of coaching at both day and night first, and the whole team is expected to be stronger,” he added. 

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