THE SECOND AND first wholly indigenous aircraft carrier was commissioned into service in the People’s Liberation Army- Navy (PLA-N) on December 17. The CV17 Shandong is a larger and more advanced clone of the CV16 Liaoning, a refitted Kuznetsov-class carrier bought part-built from Ukraine as the Varyag and which has been in service since 2016.
The commissioning of the Shandong was deemed of such significance in the development of China’s blue-water fleet that President Xi Jinping (seen onboard in the photo above inspecting a guard of honour) attended the ceremony at the Sanya-Yulin naval base on Hainan island.
China now joins a relatively small club of nations with two aircraft carriers that can carry aircraft as opposed to helicopters. It still lags the United States by a distance, however. The US Navy has 11 Nimitz and Ford-class nuclear-powered super-carriers.
It is two and a half year since the Shandong was launched and fitting out started. Sea trials commenced in May 2017. That relatively long, albeit planned period of testing suggests that technical issues with new systems, especially for control and command, weapons and radar, may have proved as challenging as expected.
Like the Liaoning, the new carrier is conventionally powered and has a ‘ski-jump’ takeoff. The design limits it to carrying helicopters and Shenyang J-15 fighter jets, although its larger size (66,000-70,000 tons vs 60,000-66,000 tons) and a 10% smaller ‘island’ lets it accommodate 36 aircraft against the Liaoning’s 24. That, though, is still a dozen aircraft short of what naval planners would consider the minimum necessary for combat.
Nonetheless, whereas the Liaoning has mainly been used for training, the Shandong will have a more routine military role. On its route south from the shipyard in Dalian where it was built to its new base in Sanya, the Shandong made a point of passing through the Taiwan Straits.
As well as providing patrol capability to reinforce China’s territorial claims in the South China sea, the new carrier will be able to be a regular and ready presence in those waters as a counterpoint to the freedom of navigation operations conducted by the navies of the United States and its allies.
It will let the PLA patrol between the ‘two island chains’ and the sea lanes critical to China’s trade, including the maritime belt of the Belt and Road initiative, although, like the Liaoning, it cannot be at sea for more than six days without refueling.
The Shandong will also undertake the flag-waving-cum-power-projection exercises of naval visits. There is speculation that although the carrier will based alongside the PLA-N’s South Sea Fleet in Sanya, it may be under the direct command of the Central Military Commission.
The third of an expected six aircraft carriers is under construction at the Jiangnan military naval yard in Shanghai (the first two were built in Dalian). The Class 003 carrier is likely to be conventionally powered, but larger (of the order of 80,000-85,000 tons) and using more powerful catapult launch systems in place of ski-jump takeoff.
It is expected to be in the water late next year and commissioned in 2023. Its successors are likely to be nuclear powered.
But as much as new, larger and more powerful carriers with greater sea range, the PLA-N needs to develop next-generation carrier-based fighter jets if its carrier battle groups are to be an effective fighting force. Even improved versions of the J-20 and FC-31 and a rumoured next-generation stealth fighter would not match the US Navy’s F-35C, the carrier version of the US Air Force’s Lightning stealth fighter, already in the air.