Tag Archives: PLA-N

The Weighty Matter of China’s Carrier-Borne Aircraft

CHINA’S FIRST INDIGENOUSLY designed aircraft carrier is expected to start its sea trials shortly, probably immediately after lunar new year.

The sister ship to the Liaoning, a refitted former Soviet carrier, was launched in April and has since been being fitted out in the Dalian yards where it was built (see below).  The Liaoning is currently at sea on a training mission for the crew that will man the new carrier.

Satellite image of China's first indigenous aircraft carrier being fitted out at Dalian, 2018

The still unnamed new carrier is pencilled in to enter active service at the end of this year.

Meanwhile, in the Jiangnan yards in Shanghai, work is proceeding on the next generation of Chinese carriers — and this time under a roof to hide the construction  from prying eyes in the sky.

The Type 002s will be conventionally, not nuclear powered and about 40% larger than the Type 001/001As (which at 60,000 tons displacement are mid-sized at best for carriers).  Their most significant difference is that they will employ a catapult system, not a ‘ski-jump’ to launch their aircraft.

Building the first of the next generation of carriers had been held up while the PLA-Navy (PLA-N)’s crack marine engineers solved the problem of how to power the catapult system.

The PLA-N had always wanted to go straight to an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMAL), similar to the ones on the latest US carriers. EMALs impose less wear and tear on the planes than steam-catapult launches, allow faster launches than with either ski or steam-catapult systems and allow the aircraft to carry heavier payloads.

Most importantly, the only carrier-borne aircraft the PLA-N has is a marine version of the J-15, based on 30-year old Soviet designs and the heaviest active carrier-based fighter jet in the world. Steam catapults would struggle to launch them.

However, EMALs are energy-ravenous. To date, only nuclear-powered carriers can utilize them. Conventionally powered carriers in all navies have to use steam-power, and China is not yet at the point of development of its carrier fleet where the vessels can be nuclear powered (though that is only a matter of time).

However, the PLA-N’s engineers have cracked the problem of generating enough power for an EMAL on a non-nuclear powered vessel with a head-to-tail redesign of a ship’s energy generation, storage and distribution systems. As a bonus, it will also potentially provide the power needed to launch missiles and other weapons systems.

Our man with the blueprints and T-square says that the solution ‘builds on’ the first-generation integrated propulsion system used on the United States’ Zumwalt-class guided missile destroyers which were launched in 2013.

Solving the power problem had held up development of the Type 002 carriers, which state media has previously reported had started in 2015, because the choice of launch system affects the design of the ship.

The logjam was reportedly only cleared in November after an intensive year of testing and development. Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo  told state television that month that J-15s had conducted thousands of take-offs using the electromagnetic launch system. The Navy has built a land-based test rig, just as it has a test aircraft deck in Wuhan.

China has been trying to develop a lighter fighter, the FC-31/J-31 fifth-generation stealth fighter, to replace the J-15. Shenyang Aircraft Corp., which also makes the J-15, has built two prototypes. One was shown off at the Zhuhai air show back in 2014.

However, further development has, we hear, been bedevilled by technical problems. The first test flight of a prototype was not until the end of 2016, and with a larger plane than initially intended. The proposed carrier version is larger still, leaving the PLA-N little better off regarding weight than it is with the J-15.


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China Rushes To Ready Its Second Carrier For Party Congress

China's first indigenous aircraft carrier, codenamed the 002, seen at its mooring dock in Dalian in 2017 being fitted out.

CHINA SHIPBUILDING INDUSTRY Corp. (CSIC) and Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Corp. (DSIC) are rushing to complete the construction of China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier (seen above at her mooring dock in Dalian earlier this year) so the start of her sea trials can be trumpeted at the forthcoming Party congress. A stronger, more outward looking China is expected to be one of the themes of the meeting.

Outfitting work and system debugging of the 70,000-tonne Type 001A carrier, modelled on the Liaoning, a converted Soviet era carrier bought from Ukraine that is now in PLA-Navy service, are almost complete ahead of schedule, according to a defence ministry spokesman, and the power-systems tests have been completed.

DSIC’s chairman, Liu Zheng, told a company Party meeting last month that the shipbuilder would “greet the 19th CPC National Congress by delivering key achievements on a special product in this special time”.

The timetable for the mooring trials is being telescoped so the carrier can set out to sea in time for the Party congress. Sea trials, which will test propulsion and communications systems under operational conditions, are the final phase before a vessel is handed over the navy to be commissioned into service.

From an April launch to September sea trials would be the blink of an eye in terms of aircraft carrier production, but a signal of the symbolic important Beijing places on its first home-built carrier.

Meanwhile, the first of the successor generation of carriers, the Type 002, is under construction in Shanghai yards.

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China’s Djibouti Base Raises The Flag

Satellite image taken in early 2017 showing location of Doraleh Multi-Purpose Port and construction of adjacent Chinese naval base. Picture credit: Google Maps.

THE PLA-NAVY formally opened its base in Djibouti this week, China’s first military base overseas — though Beijing prefers to call it support facilities. Symbolically, it raised the flag in Djibouti on the same day as the PLA’s 90th anniversary.

The base is next to the Doraleh Multi-purpose Port to the west of Djibouti City on the southern side of the Gulf of Tadjoura which opens out into the Gulf of Aden. The $420 million port was only formally opened in May and is still half-finished. The biggest Chinese port construction project in the region, it was built by China State Construction and Engineering Corp. (CSCEC). China Merchants Holdings International is a stakeholder in the port’s operations.

A base comprising an encampment adjacent to a Chinese-built commercial port is a model seen in the making in Gwadar in Pakistan and likely to be repeated in Sri Lanka, and perhaps elsewhere.

Bases operated by the US Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force are only a few kilometers to the southeast. The United States runs some of its most secret drone operations in the Middle East from its Camp Lemonnier base next to Djibouti’s international airport.

Map of Djibouti City showing location of Doraleh Mult-purpose Port adjacent to China's naval base and the US military's Camp Lemonnier.

China’s base has been under construction since early last year, at a reported cost of $590 million. It covers a little more than one-third of a square kilometer and can accommodate several thousand military personnel. Satellite imagery of a later date than Google’s seen above suggests hangar facilities for helicopters and a short runway have been built before berths.

However, there are no deepwater channels running to the base, so the neighboring port, which does have deepwater berths, one of which is reserved for the PLA-N, is going to have to be living up to its name.

China has taken a ten-year lease on the land for its naval base and is a major funder of the Djibouti government, footing the bill for at least $14 billion-worth of infrastructure from railways to ports, airports and water conduits.

The rent China is paying for its naval base is not publicly disclosed (our man with his nose in the sand reckons that it is $20 million a year), but the US pays $63 million a year under its 20-year lease on its base.

The debate over the extent to which the base represents power projection will only continue, though that power projection will likely be steady but incremental as Beijing practices at being a world power.

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China Looks At Semi-Submersible Warships

Illustration of concept models of semi-submersible arsenal ships

THE ‘ARSENAL SHIP’ is a 20-year old idea proposed by the US Navy. At base, they are a mobile floating platform for launching large numbers of missiles at sea, large being in the hundreds. A putative price tag of $450 million caused the US Congress to knock the idea on the head in 1998 when it scrapped funding.

Popular Science magazine is now saying that the PLA-Navy has taken up the idea, and with a twist. Its ideas for arsenal ships would let them slip beneath the waves better to evade detection.

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but plans have been seen of a couple of concepts for large scale warship-cum-submarines with flat hulls and steering fins that would let them at least semi-submerge as well as hydroplane when on the surface. One illustrative example is seen above. Wuhan City has been claiming some props for the research being done locally.

An arsenal ship would naturally fall into a carrier battle group, relying on the aircraft carrier’s fighters to protect it from air threats while providing the battle group with hundreds of extra missile launchers.

The magazine says:

Chinese research institutes have been testing sub-models of both arsenal ship configurations since 2011, including open-water tests for the hydroplane arsenal ship and laboratory tests for the arsenal submarine. Unverified rumours on the Chinese internet claim that a full-scale, proof-of-concept is under construction at Bohai Shipbuilding Heavy Industrial Corporation, to be launched after 2020.

There would be considerable technical challenges to overcome with an arsenal ship, especially one of the size China envisages. Not least, will be making it strong enough to contend with the stresses it would encounter underwater. Semi-submersible warships that have been built to date are small, torpedo-boat sized.

It would also need to be able to travel fast enough to keep up with a carrier group, which would make the hydroplane option the more likely.

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High Stakes

THE BYSTANDER SUSPECTS that the aerial incident involving two Su-30 fighter jets and a US WC-135 reconnaissance plane over the East China Sea this Wednesday past has more to do with North Korea than China-US conflicts.

The American plane was on deployment sampling the atmosphere for evidence of nuclear explosions, though Beijing has accused it of unspecified ‘surveillance’ activity in airspace over the Yellow rather than the East China Sea. Whether the flight indicates that Washington is expecting another test by Pyongyang shortly or whether it was a routine radiation measurement flight, we are unsure.

It is sure, however, that the repeated flights by US warplanes near Chinese airspace are a constant irritant to Beijing, to which Washington is disinclined to pay any heed. The last occasion planes from the two sides came dangerously close was over the South China Sea in February. That may have been inadvertent, but an incident in May last year was not.

The risk from such ‘unsafe intercepts’ is a collision as happened in 2001 when a PLA-Navy pilot died after his interceptor jet hit a US Navy signals intelligence aircraft over Hainan Island. Systems were put in place after that to make such incidents less likely, and there are parallel procedures at sea-level for naval vessels. Disaster, though, will always be waiting to happen for as long as these flights continue.

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Heading For The Deep Blue Yonder

The aircraft carrier Liaoning seen in the East China Sea

THE PLA-NAVY’S aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (above), has sailed for the Western Pacific on what state media say is a routine naval exercise. The trip marks the first time it has ventured into ‘blue water’.

Japan’s defence ministry noted that the carrier and seven other warships had sailed from the East China Sea making passage between Okinawa and Miyako islands on Saturday headed for the Philippines Sea. Taiwan’s counterpart said on Monday that the carrier had entered the South China Sea after passing south of the island, though it counted two fewer vessels than the Japanese (it may not be counting supply ships; a carrier battle group usually comprises eight vessels).

The symbolism of the sailing is that the Liaoning has ‘broken through’ the ‘first island chain’ — the first major archipelagos out from the East Asian littoral, stretching from the Kamchatka peninsula in the north to the Malay peninsula in the south-west and within which China believes the United States wants to keep its force projection penned.

This trip may have been long planned to come just as US President-elect Donald Trump prepared to take over from Barack Obama, but the timing will have added piquancy given Trump’s ratcheting up of tensions in past weeks, including suggestions that his administration might abandon the One China policy.

Last month, Beijing declared the Liaoning ‘combat-ready’ and the warship conducted its first live-fire drills earlier this month in the Bohai Sea. Before heading out to the Pacific, Liaoning was carrying out combat-readiness air drills in the East China Sea including aerial refuelling of its J-15 fighters.

This trip (or the next one) may be intended to get the Liaoning to the ‘second island chain’ (Guam, Mariana Islands and Iwo Jima) to test the carrier group’s long-range mission capabilities, which will be essential to changing the strategic naval balance of power in the Western Pacific (eventually).

The nationalist-minded state newspaper, the Global Times, lays out the long-term course:

The Chinese fleet will cruise to the Eastern Pacific sooner or later. When China’s aircraft carrier fleet appears in offshore areas of the US one day, it will trigger intense thinking about maritime rules.

That is still some day off, but no longer never.


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Surprise Seizure In South China Sea

THE SEIZING OF a US Navy underwater drone by the PLA-Navy points to the potential for a small incident to take on greater import as Sino-American relations become more uncertain ahead of Donald Trump assuming the US presidency.

The drone was conducting a military oceanographic survey to map underwater channels in what the US claims are open waters some 160 kilometres off the Philippines, but China considers to be its own.

The incident comes hard on the heels of the publication of satellite photographs showing anti-aircraft batteries on seven of China’s artificial islands in the South China Seas and US President-elect Donald Trump’s questioning of Washington’s commitment to the ‘One China’ policy and his taking of a telephone call earlier from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.

Having had the unpredictability card played against it, Beijing may be countering in kind.

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