The Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) continues to prepare its new aircraft carrier (SHI LANG) for operations and train a nascent cadre of naval aviators to launch and return to the deck of a moving ship. Beyond developing the day-to-day tasks involved with driving a carrier and conducting flight operations, the Chinese military must painstakingly invest time, money, and manpower to grow certain critical capabilities associated with their new platform. Otherwise the PLAN risk their carrier project becoming a symbolic gesture instead of power projection. Here’s why:

The PLAN is developing J-15 fighter aircraft (a knock-off copy of the Su-33K, which the Russians successfully operate from SHI LANG’s sister ship ADMIRAL KUZNETSOV) and aircrew for operations afloat. The J-15 (like the Su-33) can launch from the “ski jump” configuration on the Chinese carrier, but an unassisted take-off allows much less fuel and ordnance than the steam (and soon-to-be electromagnetic) catapults used by the US Navy carrier fleet. While the J-15 is a capable aircraft, the ski-jump restrictions would force the fighter to hit tanker aircraft for a gas top-up right away, if the goal is to conduct sustained missions.

Unfortunately for the PLAN, the same limitation on the J-15 precludes launching a fuel-laden airframe from the Chinese carrier. While the Chinese Navy has a small number of land-based tankers, the PLA Air Force owns the remainder of the tanker fleet. Aerial refueling from a joint perspective is a process the Chinese must consider for carrier strike operations beyond their navy’s land-based support elements.

Additionally, any aircraft flying from the Chinese carrier would have a very limited weapons load-out, both from a launch thrust-to-weight aspect and recovery back aboard. What small number of bombs or missiles the aircraft have in their load-out would have to be dropped in the sea prior to return, if not used on an assigned target. In the calculus of servicing aimpoints vs. sortie generation, the result is fairly disappointing.

Additionally, carrier-based airborne early warning (AEW) capabilities will be time and distance limited: the same thrust issue prevents a ski-jump launch of fixed-wing AEW aircraft. The Chinese are providing a gap-filler by purchasing the Ka-31 AEW helicopter from the Russians but this is a limitation of sensor range that precludes deeper strike missions originated from the carrier. Blue water carrier strike groups on par with the “anytime, anywhere” US Navy remain elusive for the Chinese while these hurdles remain.

The Chinese will have to develop its carriers and air wings by iteration. The J-15 can be initially used as a robust carrier-based air-interceptor and show-of-force package, until the Chinese develop assisted launches for sensor and tanker aircraft along with heavier strike-fighters. But don’t assume that a slow pace is in any way a show-stopper– far from it. While solutions take time and serious investment, the Chinese will attack the problem with gusto. If capability and will are factors for success, the PLAN has no shortage of either.

And what about the Chinese naval aviators? Don’t expect to see much photo or video evidence when these test pilots first get out to sea, beyond carefully scripted events. Pitching and rolling decks are much different (and dangerous) than a stationary carrier mock-up on a landing strip. It took the Brits and the US Navy almost 20 years to figure it out. But just as we watch the Chinese military send taikonauts into space to reach the moon in the next decade, Beijing will demand a similar effort to build their own squadrons of skilled carrier aviators. Make no mistake, there will be a steep learning curve for the PLA Navy. Lucky for them, China has an ample supply of money and people to throw at the problem.

Commander Michael Hannan is the US Navy senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the views of US Department of Defense, the US Navy, or any other agency.