QINGDAO, China – On Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s first official visit to China, the Peoples’ Liberation Army allowed him, in response to a request made in January, to become the first foreign visitor to tour the sleek refitted Russian aircraft carrier – the PLA’s first – called Liaoning.
China is Hagel’s third stop after multiday meetings in Hawaii and Japan on his fourth trip to the Asia-Pacific region since becoming defense secretary. After a day of meetings here tomorrow, Hagel will stop in Mongolia to meet with government and military leaders there before starting home April 10.
Liaoning is moored at Yuchi Naval Base in its home port of Qingdao in east China’s Shandong province.
“The secretary was very pleased with his visit today aboard the carrier Liaoning,” Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement.
Hagel understood the significance of the PLA’s granting of his request for the tour, Kirby added, and the secretary was impressed by the professionalism of the ship’s officers and crew.
“He hopes today’s visit is a harbinger of other opportunities to improve our military-to-military dialogue and transparency,” the press secretary said.
A defense official traveling with the secretary described the ship’s tour as lasting about two hours, beginning with a briefing about the ship, its capabilities and operating schedule conducted by the two-star strike carrier group commander and the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Zhang Zheng.
The briefers were good, and they invited and encouraged questions, the official said. Hagel and his guest, U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus, and others on the tour all asked questions, the official added.
“The briefing lasted about 30 minutes, and then we saw medical facilities on the ship, some of the living quarters, the flight control station where they control flight operations, the pilot house, and the bridge, where they drive the ship,” the defense official said.
The secretary and his group also took a walking tour of the flight deck and saw launch stations and helicopter recovery stations as well arresting cables, “and got a briefing on how what we call in the U.S. Navy the ‘landing signals officers’ guide the aircraft in for an arrested landing on the flight deck,” the official explained.
He said the ship was extraordinarily clean, and the crew was sharp and informative.
”Every sailor at every station where Hagel [stopped] for the tour knew exactly what their job was, and how important their job was, and exactly how to explain it to the secretary,” the official said.
Hagel had a lot of give-and-take discussions with the crew throughout the tour, and talked to them just as he talks to U.S. troops when he goes out to visit them, the defense official added.
“The tour ended with a stop in the officers’ dining area, where Hagel had a chance to sit down with junior officers, have some refreshments and just talk to them,” the official said. “We all did. I sat down at a table with two junior female officers, and everybody did the same thing.”
The crew members were very impressive and very dedicated, he observed.
“It’s a new capability they’re trying to develop, and I think they all appreciate the importance of it to the PLA, but also the difficulty of it,” the official said. “On more than one occasion, the officers who were with us said quite frankly they know they have a long way to go in naval aviation. It is a difficult military capability to develop and to perfect, … and they expressed that they believe they can still learn much from us in terms of how to get better at it.”
The ship has three launching stations for jet aircraft, four arresting wires, a complement of about 1,500 sailors, one sixth of whom are officers, and there were 90 women in the crew, both officers and enlisted service members, the defense official said.
Liaoning has been out on sea trials almost 20 times, and officials know they still have to do more, he added.
Compared with U.S. aircraft carriers, Laioning isn’t as big or fast, and it doesn’t carry as many aircraft or as many types of aircraft, the official said, but it’s a real aircraft carrier, capable of launching and recovering jet combat aircraft.
“We asked them when they would have an operational naval air wing on the ship, and the captain said there’s no timeline for that right now,” the official said. “They aren’t at the state where they’re declaring that sort of operational readiness.”
The defense official said the opportunity for Hagel and his group to tour the aircraft carrier today was a significant step in China’s attempts to be transparent and open.
“I would say that as this trip to Beijing begins for the secretary, today was a good first step in terms of trying to develop more openness and transparency,” the defense official said.