China’s carrier ambitions

CHINA IS building an aircraft carrier force, and it’s not that farfetched to assume that in a few years the People’s Liberation Army Navy will maintain the world’s second largest fleet of carriers.


Maiden cruise

China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier started its longawaited sea trials on May 13 as a historic step towards the country’s ambitions – an aim, proclaimed by President Xi Jinping himself on April 12 – to build a “worldclass” navy. This aim is still many years away from presenting a global challenge to the US Navy, but as a regional power its carrier programme is progressing steadily. After six days at sea, the new ship, most likely designated Type 002 or at least Project 002, arrived back home at its homeport Dalian Shipyard on May 18.

According to military experts, this early trial would have mainly tested the ship’s propulsion and communication systems, while all other systems, such as its electronics and weapons systems, including carrier landings, will be tested in subsequent trials over the coming months. Consequently, expectation is that the new ship will be tested for about 12 months under different sea conditions before being handed over to the navy. Perhaps not unexpected – and similar to the Liaoning’s maiden cruise – the Type 002 ship subsequently reappeared in the dry dock for further checks. Interestingly – and as such a novelty in Chinese naval history – on May 27, the new carrier’s sister ship also arrived at Dalian, so for the first time two Chinese aircraft carriers could be seen together.

Type 002 carrier

Chinese media confirmed for the first time on June 7, 2011, via the People’s Liberation Army Chief of the General Staff, General Chen Bingde, that China was constructing its own aircraft carrier. The first indigenously constructed aircraft carrier was under construction at the Dalian shipyard until April 2017. Cutting first steel for the ship, a heavily modified Kuznetsov class design, again featuring a ski-jump, actually took place in August 2013 with lay-down in March 2014. Official launch took place on April 26, 2017, and since then outfitting has been completed prior to the maiden cruise. If everything continues according to plan, commissioning could be expected at best in late 2019 or more likely 2020. Interestingly, it might be designated CV-17 and some sources are already suggesting the ship will probably be named Shandong…

… and future ambitions

China’s carrier programme has experienced some changes to its schedule and capabilities, and, according to the latest reports, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is now following a revised plan.

China’s Type 003 will be a true catapult-equipped super carrier, which was originally planned to be built slightly later than and in parallel with the Type 002 vessel at the shipyard in Jiangnan. However, a construction start was postponed due to an ongoing decision process on which type of catapult to use. The navy seems to have decided on an electromagnetic launch system, with the delay viewed as the price to pay for a more capable carrier.

The Type 003 will have an increased displacement of about 80,000 tonnes, and will most likely be equipped with three catapults.

Some Chinese reports claim the first steel for the Type 003 was cut at JNCX shipyard in June 2017, and several reliable sources report the new carrier is already in subassembly production.

In parallel with the Type 003 carrier, yet another carrier-type is under construction, namely the Type 075 large-deck amphibious assault ship. Here, too, the situation is far from confirmed. While some sources report the ship has been under construction at the Hudong- Zhonghua shipyard in Shanghai since March 2016, others say the design was only finished in 2016, and that construction started in early 2017. The Type 075 is likely to have a displacement of 36,000-40,000 tonnes with the ability to carry 24 to 28 helicopters.

Seen here during its return to the Dalian shipyard on May 18, the Type 002 carrier is tugged back to its position. The ship’s revised island is clearly visible.
On April 28, China’s Type 002 carrier was externally finished and its maiden voyage was eagerly expected.
All images via Chinese Internet unless noted
For the first time in Chinese naval history, two aircraft carriers were moored together in one shipyard, seen in this image reportedly taken in early May.

Ambition level

Assessing China’s level of ambition is difficult, since the role of carriers is essentially a question about the future of the Peoples Liberation Army Navy itself, which can only be best founded on known developments, current capabilities and rumour. A carrier fleet is a logical consequence of China’s rising ambitions for its role on the international stage, as an export nation and as a regional power.

To project such ambitions at any time requires control of the sea and a carrier fleet is one tool for achieving that; and if China wants to enforce its ambitions, a fleet of about five to six carriers by 2030– 2035 is a sensible estimation.

Although China aims to be on par with the United States in terms of military capability and technology, it still faces many uncertainties. Even with a new aircraft carrier boosting its military power in the Asian region, China still lags far behind the world’s naval superpower, the United States Navy, which currently has ten nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, more than all other navies operate together.