Tag Archives: Dalian

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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More Questioning Of Growth At Any Cost

Protesters who got authorities in Dalian to promise to relocate the Fujia chemical plant may have been pushing at an open door. Officials had already been discussing the closure of the plant, whose protective seawall was breached by Typhoon Muifa earlier this month. Beyond the typhoon damage, which threatened a spill of the toxic chemicals used in the plant’s production of paraxylene, an ingredient of polyester film and fabrics, there have been questions of whether the plant was operating before it had received the necessary safety approvals, whether local officials had turned a blind eye to the illegal production, and whether all was as it should be with the granting of the final approval. The plant is a joint venture between the Dalian Chemical Co. and Fujia, a large and well-connected local real-estate developer.

At the same time, the protests against the plant’s siting, in the Dagushan industrial zone in the city’s suburbs no more than 20 kilometers from the city center, are another example of the popular questioning of the dash for economic growth regardless of the environmental and social costs. The plant is part of a drive to create a vertically integrated petrochemicals industry in the city to replace old rustbelt industries, and only one of some three dozen chemical plants in the Dagushan industrial zone.

Typhoon Muifa is only the latest intervention by nature to highlight the environmental dangers of such industrial concentration. Last year an oil pipeline exploded causing serious pollution to local waters and beaches. Nor is the plant the first paraxylene production facility to be relocated away from residential areas. One in Xiamen was moved after local protests there in 2007.

While neither place nor time has been given for moving Dalian’s–it is China’s largest such plant, so it can’t just be picked up and put down somewhere else overnight–it might well also not be the last to come under the scrutiny of a public decreasingly trustful of large-scale industrial development projects. China has 14 paraxylene plants, half a dozen of which, like Dalian’s, have been built in the past five years.

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Dalian Oil Spill Bigger Than Said, But Big Enough For A Minamata Moment?

The pipeline explosion at a PetroChina oil terminal outside Dalian two weeks ago that sent crude oil gushing  in to the Yellow Sea is reckoned to be China’s worst known oil spill. The worst by quite how much is now the question.

Official figures put the size of the spill at 1,500 tons of oil, which would be 11,000 barrels or half a million gallons. Rick Steiner, an American marine conservation specialist consulting for Greenpeace and who has seen the spill, told the BBC that the spill was lager than that caused by the Exxon Valdez, the tanker that hit a reef off Alaska in 1989 spilling an estimated 260,000 to 750,000 barrels of crude into Prince William Sound. At the time it was the largest oil spill in U.S. waters and is still regarded as one of the worst man-made environmental disasters.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=dalian%2c+oil&iid=9419277″ src=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9419277/worker-cleans-the-oil-from/worker-cleans-the-oil-from.jpg?size=500&imageId=9419277″ width=”234″ height=”349″ /]Steiner guesstimates that at least 440,000 barrels of oil have spilled into the Yellow Sea from the Dalian explosion creating a slick covering some 1,000 square kilometers (400 square miles). Despite the massive clean-up now underway (left), the environmental damage is likely to persist for years and it is uncertain what lasting effect it will have on nearby fishing grounds.

China’s oil companies and officials were already reviewing their contingency plans in the light of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, though reports of the clean-up operation in the Yellow Sea suggest it mainly involves throwing thousands of people at scooping up the oil from boats and off the beaches, some with their bare hands, and spraying chemical dispersants on the water.

Environmentally damaging industrial accidents are commonplace in China. Just earlier this week some 7,000 barrels of toxic chemicals were swept into the Songhua River in Jilin, a source of drinking water for several million people. But such accidents haven’t yet triggered the political backlash that seems inevitable. John Foley of Reuters Breakingviews suggested that was because China “has not yet reached its ‘Minamata moment'”, a reference to the death of nearly 3,000 residents of a Japanese town caused by the dumping in the early 1970s of mercury into Minamata Bay. The case became the poster child for  the unacceptable environmental costs of rapid industrialization, and made controlling pollution a national political priority in Japan.

In 2007, the World Bank estimated that pollution was responsible for the deaths of 460,000 Chinese a year. Authorities have been trying to curb the worst excess of industrial pollution, but it is a Sisyphean task at this stage of China’s economic development. The Party is well aware of the potential challenge to its power that could come from the emergence of single-issue pressure groups such as environmentalists campaigning for water fit to drink and air fit to breathe. Whether the Dalian oil spill turns out to be big enough to create China’s Minamata moment or not, at some point it will arrive.

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Kicking The Foreign Investment Tires

The U.S. tire-maker Goodyear is close to investing $1 billion in a second plant near Dalian, according to Reuters, though the company says it has yet to make a final decision.

Goodyear has been producing in China since 1994, when it set up a joint venture with Dalian Rubber General Factory, and now has a retail distribution network through its Eagle Stores. Rivals Michelin, Continental AG and Bridgestone also produce in the world’s second largest car market for both local and export sales.

An investment of this size will need State Council approval, which it is likely to get. Contrary to the impression held by some outside the country, China is welcoming to new foreign direct investment, even if it provides competition for existing local manufacturers. China has a large enough domestic tire industry to account collectively for 6% of the world market with sales of $6.5 billion, including the export of 30 million tires a year to the U.S.

What China won’t allow is foreigners taking over existing local enterprises, unless they are basket cases, and foreigners taking control of the major state-owned enterprises in industries where there is a designated national champion. China Law Blog has an exemplary post today laying out China’s FDI rules in plain English.

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