Light, Fleet And Super: Building China’s Aircraft Carriers

China's first indigenous aircraft carrier under construction in Dalian in Liaoning province

CHINA LAID DOWN its long-term plan to develop an indigenous carrier fleet as long ago as 1987. It took a quarter of a century for the first carrier, the Liaoning, to be commissioned into service, in September 2012.

China’s first carrier was a half-way house in as much as it was a refitted unfinished Soviet vessel, the Varyag. In late December, the defence ministry confirmed the open secret that a second and entirely indigenously designed carrier was being built.

Like the Liaoning, this is being constructed in Dalian, as shown in the satellite image above. Work started in late February or early March, using the same dry dock used to convert the Varyag into the Liaoning.

The new carrier looks to be similar in shape to the Liaoning, though its upper deck may be slightly longer to fit on more planes. It will be conventionally powered, with a ‘ski-jump’ launch for its aircraft. Its displacement has been reported at 50,000-53,000 tonnes, about half the size of the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz and new Ford-class carriers.

Whereas the Liaoning was primarily intended to learn the ropes of building and operating a carrier, the second ship is being built with the intention of operational deployment on ‘combat patrols and humanitarian missions’.

It may start trials as soon as at the end of this year, but it will probably be at least two years after that until it is commissioned. The Liaoning spent more than a year in sea trials and the new carrier will be more complex, particular in terms of its systems, and especially the systems need for carrier groups to operate missions.

These will be domestically developed for the first time, and so need extensive testing. Commissioning the new carrier in December 2018 would be a splashy way to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Mao’s birth.

The new carrier is also likely not the only one that China will add to its fleet. A December 2013 report by New York-based Duowei News sourced to Central Military Commission officials said the PLA-Navy planned to commission two Liaoning-pattern aircraft carriers — known as Type 001s — by 2020.  Wang Min, the Liaoning provincial Party boss, spoke in 2014 of plans for the construction in Dalian of two more carriers.

Assuming the carrier now being built could vacate its dry dock by the end of this year, allowing work on the next carrier to start in early 2017, that deadline might not slip more than a year or so.

That would give China a trio of similar carriers, which fits the pattern across many navies of having carriers in sets of three, one on operational deployment, one in maintenance and one for training. Collectively, they would have 90-100 aircraft and comprise a formidable maritime force in nearby waters such as the East and South China Seas, and beyond towards the Indian Ocean.

India and China are engaged in a competitive race to build their blue-water fleets as they jostle for regional power. All of which makes what is going on at the Jiangnan shipyard on Changxingdao, the island opposite Shanghai at the mouth of the Changjiang river, even more interesting.

Jiangnan Shipyard, Shanghai as seen on Google Earth, January 3, 2016

Seven years ago, Japan’s Asahi newspaper reported that state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corp., the owner of the yard, was building four new docks there (seen in the image above) for the construction of two indigenous mid-sized aircraft carriers – i.e. suggesting something larger than the Liaoning and its sister Type 001s.

One question is, how much larger. The Liaoning and its sister ship(s) fall into the category of light aircraft carriers, at least in terms of capabilities if not necessary displacement. Light aircraft carriers are the Bantamweights of aircraft carriers, as much aviation-capable patrol ships as anything.

The so-called Type 002s to be built in Shanghai could still be in that class, just more offensively capable, with more fighter aircraft and a stronger supporting group comprising destroyers and frigates, logistics and supply ships and possibly submarines.

Or they may be large enough to be considered fleet carriers, albeit still far smaller that U.S., French or Japanese fleet carriers. If China is to have a blue-water navy capable of projecting force far from its shores, it will need fleet carriers — and eventually supercarriers if it is to fulfil its long-term ambition of matching the U.S. Navy.

Another question is, which launching mechanism will be used? A Shenyang J-15 fighter jet cannot take off from the Liaoning’s ski jump both fully armed and with a sufficient fuel load to carry those weapons a useful distance. That could restrict the carriers’ aircraft to air-to-air missions to the exclusion of air-to-ground attacks. That, in turn, could diminish the effectiveness of the advanced Shenyang J-33 fighters being developed for the carriers.

Ski-jump launchers also limit the deck space available for parked aircraft. Ski-jump-launched planes need a longer take-off run than catapult-launched ones.

If China’s carriers are to be deployed operationally as intended such shortcomings will have to be addressed. One or both of the new Type 001s might use a hybrid solution of including so-called ‘waist’ catapult launchers along with a ski jump, as some Russian carriers do.

Or there could be a straight switch to catapult launching, which has been the standard for the U.S. Navy. Either solution would be a significant design change, requiring extended testing time. At best, this Bystander believes, catapult launching would happen for the second of the indigenous carriers.

The Type 002s could skip a generation of launchers and go straight to electromagnetic launch systems (EMALS), of the sort the U.S. Navy is currently testing to replace its catapult launchers. That, though, might be a too courageous leap for the conservative PLA — and aircraft carriers are expensive and high-profile assets on which to experiment. Nor do we have any sense of how far China has got with developing EMALS technology, if at all.

The third question is perhaps the biggest of all. Will the Type 002s be conventionally or nuclear powered? Why that matters is that nuclear-powered carriers would vastly extend the scope and range of PLA-Navy operations.

One straw in the wind that the propulsion system may be the latter is that the Jiangnan yard has a history of building new types of vessels that are firsts for China. Will China’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier be added to its honour roll?

This Bystander thinks that, eventually, it will, but that it will be not the first Type 002 it builds. It could be the second, although we lean slightly towards that being conventionally powered, too, and the transition to nuclear carriers and supercarriers starting after that.

The PLA-Navy already has a dozen nuclear-powered submarines; in fact, it decommissioned its first nuclear submarine in 2013, after three decades of service. That same year, China Shipbuilding Industry Corp. started state-funded research on core technologies and safety considerations for future nuclear-powered surface vessels.

Ships that need to be at sea for long periods without refuelings, such as polar vessels and aircraft carriers, are likely candidates. However, unlike building hulls of aircraft-carrier size and strength, scaling up nuclear propulsion from a submarine to an aircraft carrier is not a trivial task.

Going from starting research to commissioning something as large, complicated and expensive as an aircraft carrier within a decade strikes us as far too tight a deadline to hit. But nuclear-powered Chinese supercarriers on the high seas in 10-15 years from now seems eminently likely.

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One response to “Light, Fleet And Super: Building China’s Aircraft Carriers

  1. Pingback: It Is Not Having An Aircraft Carrier; It Is What You Can Do With It. | China Bystander

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