In the first three weeks of May, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aircraft carrier Liaoning (遼寧)—the PLAN’s first carrier, adapted from the hull of the incomplete former Soviet vessel Varyag—conducted a training cruise in the open Pacific waters to the east of Taiwan. Liaoning departed its homeport of Qingdao on April 30, accompanied by a training surface action group (SAG) of seven additional vessels drawn from both the PLAN’s North Sea Fleet (NSF, 北海艦隊, based in Qingdao, Shandong Province) and East Sea Fleet (ESF, 東海艦隊, based in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province). These vessels—five guided-missile destroyers (DDG), a guided-missile frigate (FFG), and an auxiliary supply ship—provided escorts for the Liaoning, while also conducting training evolutions of their own throughout the three-week underway period. (See full list of accompanying ships below.)
After getting underway, the Liaoning and the accompanying NSF vessels transited southward through the East China Sea, passing through the strategically important Miyako Strait (宮古海峽) on May 2. Also on May 2, they reportedly rendezvoused with the ESF vessels in the waters to the west of the Senkaku (or Diaoyutai, 釣魚臺) Islands, whose sovereignty is disputed between China and Japan.  After this, Liaoning and its supporting vessels spent nearly three weeks conducting training in the vicinity of Japan’s Ryukyu Islands and the waters east of Taiwan (“Taiwan eastern sea area,” 台灣東部海域).
Liaoning Training Deployment Vessels, April-May 2022
|Ship Name / Hull Number||Ship Class / Type (Chinese Designation)||NATO Designation||Subordination|
|Liaoning (遼寧) / 16||Type 001 Aircraft Carrier||KUZNETSOV CV||PLAN Headquarters|
|Nanchang (南昌) / 101||Type 055 Destroyer||RENHAI CG-001||PLAN North Sea Fleet|
|Xining (西寧) / 117||Type 052D Destroyer||LUYANG-III DDG-117||PLAN North Sea Fleet|
|Urumqi (烏魯木齊) / 118||Type 052D Destroyer||LUYANG-III DDG-118||PLAN North Sea Fleet|
|Chengdu (成都) / 120||Type 052D Destroyer||LUYANG-III DDG-120||PLAN North Sea Fleet|
|Zhengzhou (鄭州) / 151||Type 052C Destroyer||LUYANG-II DDG-151||PLAN East Sea Fleet|
|Xiangtan (湘潭) / 531||Type 054A Frigate||JIANGKAI-11 FFG-531||PLAN East Sea Fleet|
|Hulunhu (呼倫湖) / 901||Type 901A Supply Ship||FUYU AOR-965||PLAN North Sea Fleet|
The PLA’s official characterization of the deployment was provided on May 3, when a PLA Navy spokesperson issued a boilerplate statement that “The Chinese Navy Liaoning aircraft carrier formation is currently conducting far seas combat training in the western Pacific. This is routine training on the basis of the Chinese Navy’s annual work plan, aimed at increasing mission performance capacity; it is in accordance with relevant international law and international practices, [and] is not directed at any party.”
Despite such bland assurances, the gradually increasing proficiency of the PLAN in conducting blue water operations—as well as its conducting “crossing beyond the island chain training” (跨島鏈訓練) in the open Pacific—both bear significant implications for Taiwan’s security. Accordingly, the specifics of the Liaoning’s spring 2022 deployment are worth a closer look.
The May 2022 Operations of the Liaoning Training SAG
Per an analysis of the deployment by Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR, 國防安全研究院) Research Fellow Chiang Hsin-biao (江炘杓), the May training cruise by the Liaoning and its accompanying ships was the largest (in terms of number of vessels deployed) and most ambitious “beyond the island chain” deployment yet made by a PLAN aircraft carrier task force. According to Chiang, the carrier’s airwing demonstrated increased levels of flight operations proficiency and tempo as compared to previous underway periods, with the embarked J-15 (歼-15) fighters and helicopters conducting more than 20 days of flight operations and over 300 sorties, for an average of at least 15 sorties each day. On average, each J-15 had at least 10 flights, with sorties conducted during both daylight and nighttime hours. Such a high tempo of flights would by necessity also involve a higher level of coordination and proficiency in conducting flight support operations (e.g., fueling, use of elevators, etc.). Chiang commented that “This signals to the outside world that Liaoning is no longer a training ship, but rather a combat ship [in a state of] preparedness for war.”
Chiang’s analysis also stressed the proficiencies gained in other warfare areas by the accompanying surface vessels of the task force. He noted that all accompanying ships had deployed with Liaoning at least once before, and that three of them (Nanchang, Zhengzhou, and Hulunhu) had each done so three times. This indicates that these ships might be forming the nucleus of a future carrier battlegroup on a more organized basis. However, it is also possible that the ships accompanying Liaoning were selected on the basis of assessed materiel and crew readiness, and/or due to assessed training needs. Little public information is currently available to explain why these particular ships were selected for their escort roles.
Throughout the deployment, the accompanying vessels reportedly conducted a series of air warfare, surface warfare, and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) simulation drills, although the rigor and complexity of those drills cannot be readily determined. Another INDSR analyst, Su Zi-yun (蘇紫雲), commented to the BBC that the general operating area assumed by the SAG, as well as its focus on surface and anti-air warfare drills, indicated an emphasis on “defensive zone external attack” (防區外打擊) training, which was intended to support a “defensive strategy of preventing the US, Japan, and Taiwan from turning the ‘First Island Chain’ into the ‘Missile Island Chain.’”
The training group also conducted interactions and training evolutions at various points with other PLA Navy and Air Force assets. For example, on May 5-7, PLA aircraft flew tracks through the southern area of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and the Bashi Channel (巴士海峽)—a period when the ships were operating in waters farther to the east of Taiwan, and south of the Ryukyus (see air activities reports from Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense here, here, and here). On each of these days, a Y-8 ASW aircraft (運-8反潛機) flew a nearly identical track along the southern borders of Taiwan’s ADIZ. Also on each of these days, a pair of H-6 bombers (轟-6) flew into the ADIZ, but on May 6 the bombers made their furthest penetration, flying nearly the length of the Y-8 track (see accompanying graphic). It is conjectural, but it is likely that the aircraft were conducting coordinated training with the surface vessels, possibly including simulated anti-ship strikes by the H-6s, as well as anti-aircraft defense drills by the surface ships.
Unsurprisingly, the PLAN formation’s deployment attracted significant attention from other navies operating in the region. The USS Abraham Lincoln and USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike groups were both deployed in the western Pacific during the same timeframe as the Liaoning training SAG, although no direct interactions between US Navy vessels and the Liaoning formation have been reported. The presence of the PLAN vessels so close to Japan’s Ryukyu Islands was also an obvious point of concern for Japan, and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) destroyer helicopter carrier JS Izumo (DDH-183), as well as JMSDF maritime patrol aircraft, were deployed to monitor the activities of the PLAN formation.
It should be noted that the May 2022 Liaoning training deployment, although the largest yet made “beyond the island chain,” is not unique—and in fact, fits into an emerging pattern of such deployments. Liaoning and accompanying vessels in training formations made similar deployments in both April 2021 and December 2021—each time going “beyond the island chain” into the Philippines Sea/waters east of Taiwan, in underway periods lasting approximately 3 weeks. (Additionally, the PLA Navy’s second [and first indigenously constructed carrier], the Type 2 [KUZNETSOV MOD] Shandong (山東), conducted South China Sea training deployments in May 2021 and November-December 2021). Based on this pattern, it would be reasonable to predict another “beyond the island chain” deployment by Liaoning sometime late in 2022 (as well as another South China Sea deployment this year by Shandong).
Such deployments are not any cause to panic: they fit an emerging pattern of regular training operations, and, based on the limited publicly available information, still seem focused primarily on building basic proficiencies (underway replenishment, flight operations at night, etc.). Yet, such deployments of PLAN ships to operate in sea areas to the east of Taiwan raise obvious concerns for the security of the island and its people. The gradually increasing proficiency of the PLAN surface fleet in conducting blue water operations—and particularly, that of the navy’s air arm in conducting carrier flight operations in the deeper waters of the Pacific, far from land—is a sign of increasing confidence on the part of the PLA. It is also an obvious concern for defense planners in Taiwan, who must contend with the prospect of the island becoming encircled by hostile PLA naval forces in the event of either a coercive blockade or an active conflict. It is also a matter of concern for regional countries, such as Japan, who are rightfully concerned with the PRC’s irredentist designs and increasingly aggressive behavior. As the PLAN begins to operate with greater regularity—and in greater strength—in the waters “beyond the island chain,” such deployments will be worthy of close attention.
The main point: Recent deployments of PLAN ships operating in sea areas to the east of Taiwan fit an emerging pattern of regular training operations, which reflect the increasing proficiency of the PLAN surface fleet in conducting blue water operations.
 Taiwan, as the Republic of China, also claims sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands. See: “Ten Facts About the Diaoyutai Islands,” Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Brunei Darussalam (February 18, 2016). https://roc-taiwan.org/bn_en/post/273.html.