China’s Navy is on a roll. The Navy, or more properly the People’s Liberation Army Navy, has launched more than a hundred ships of all kinds over the past decade, including destroyers, amphibious ships, frigates, and corvettes. The PLAN is now the largest Navy in Asia, with more than 300 warships. Yet of the hundreds of warships that fly the Chinese flag, none are as important symbolically and practically as the country’s aircraft carriers.
Consisting of two carriers and a third on the way, the small-but-growing carrier fleet is evolving into a serious challenge to the U.S. Navy’s dominance of the Asia-Pacific.
China’s first carrier, the Liaoning, was commissioned in 2012 but has a history much longer than that. Originally built during the Cold War at the Soviet Union’s Nikolayev shipyards in Ukraine, the ship was incomplete when the USSR broke apart in 1991.
The hull languished for years, until a Hong Kong businessman came along with a proposal to buy the ship from and turn it into, of all things, a “floating hotel and casino.” Ukraine, with no use for it and an appetite for hard cash, was only too happy to sell the rusting hulk.
The “hotel and casino” explanation, if you couldn’t tell from how absurd it was already, was a cover story, and the ship’s ultimate destination was the PLAN. The ship was towed all the way to Dalian, China in 2000, and the Chinese government spent the next twelve years studying it and completing it as an actual, working carrier.
The ship was re-named Liaoning, and commissioned into the Chinese navy in September 2012.
Liaoning is 995 feet long and weighs 60,000 tons fully loaded. It typically carries 24 J-15 fighter jets and up to a dozen anti-submarine and utility helicopters. Lacking the technical knowledge to build aircraft catapults common on American carriers, Chinese engineers fitted Liaoning with a ski ramp designed to help loft fighters into the air. The use of a ski ramp limits the weight—and thus range and combat power—of Liaoning’s fighter jets versus those launched by traditional catapults.
China’s first carrier has nowhere near the capability as the American Ford-class supercarriers. The Ford-class is larger and heavier, and typically carries about 53 strike fighters to Liaoning’s 24. Thanks to an electromagnetic catapult launch system the Fords can also launch and recover launch and recover much heavier aircraft with heavier payloads and more fuel.
For comparison, the British Queen Elizabeth-class is slightly shorter but weighs about the same and carries roughly the same number of fighters. The Queen Elizabeth’s fighters, however, the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, are considerably more capable than their Chinese J-15 counterparts.
In April 2018, China launched its second carrier, tentatively named Type 002. (Many news reports refer to the second ship as Type 001A, but an accidental leak on the official shipbuilder’s web page called the ship Type 002, a leak that was hastily—and badly—covered up.) Type 002 is more or less a copy of Liaoning, and emblematic of China’s step-by-step approach to carrier warfare.
While Liaoning proved that the PLAN could handle basic carrier operations, The Type 002 was built to prove China could build aircraft carrier-type ships from the ground up, and it also provides a familiar platform for China’s first generation of aircraft carrier crews who will learn the job on Liaoning.
The Type 002 has some improvements, including a new new advanced electronically scanned array (AESA) radar system and the ability to carry slightly more fighters—up to 30. That having been said, she still suffers from having a ski-jump for assisted takeoffs. Despite these shortcomings 002 will be China’s first fully operational, combat ready aircraft carrier, capable of sending more than two dozen multi-role fighter jets into combat.
But wait, there’s more. China has a third carrier under construction at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard. This new carrier, the Type 003, will continue the step-by-step process proving China can build carriers to compete with U.S. Navy supercarriers.
The Type 003 will be larger and longer and displace more volume than previous Chinese carriers, but exactly how much we won’t know until more of the hull is constructed. Like American carriers and major surface combatants, the ship is being built in modules (known as “superlifts”) in a drydock, a process that assembles ships like LEGOs. The ship will likely use conventional propulsion.
Type 003 is expected to feature a catapult-based aircraft launching system. The move to catapult launching systems will enable Type 003 to launch heavier, more capable fighter aircraft with longer range and crucial propeller-driven aircraft support aircraft, such as Chinese versions of the E-2D Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft and the C-2 Greyhound transport. There are indications that China is preparing to skip steam-driven catapults, used from World War II to the present day, and use an electromagnetic aircraft launch system similar to the system on America’s newest carrier, the
USS Gerald R. Ford.
Just like an infomercial, there’s one more thing. There are reports, described as reliable by Foxtrot Alpha’s sources, that a second Type 003 is under construction at Dalian. If true, this would likely give China three combat-ready carriers by 2025.
How many more carriers will China build? Nobody really knows, though news report suggest it may ultimately have four operational carriers—Liaoning excluded. Typically the rule of thumb is that for every three carriers, one is available to go to sea, another is returning from sea, and a third is preparing to go to sea. In an emergency one of the carriers coming or going can sortie, but the chances of having all three ready for action are slim-to-none. A four carrier fleet will have one definitely carrier ready with two others available to varying degrees in emergencies, and one carrier definitely unfit for action.
If China merely means to match American power in the Asia-Pacific, four carriers is a solid number. Although the United States has ten, it has global responsibilities and typically no more than two or three are available for a Pacific deployment—and many of those are mere pass-throughs on the way to war zones in the Middle East.
On the other hand, if China wishes to surpass the U.S. Pacific Fleet, all bets are off.
Finally, China cannot just build aircraft carriers—it must build carrier battle groups. Modern carriers are light on armament, equipped primarily with point-defense missiles for self-defense. The broader defense effort against missiles, aircraft, other surface ships, and submarines will depend on the carrier’s escorts—the rest of the carrier battle group. A Chinese carrier battle group will probably emulate its American counterpart, with a Type 055 cruiser coordinating air and missile defenses, two or three Type 052D guided missile destroyers, Type 054A frigates, and even a nuclear attack submarine.
The growth of the PLA Navy is a historic opportunity to watch a major fleet literally grow out of thin air. As fascinating as it is the combination of Beijing’s rapid military expansion and recent aggressiveness against its weaker neighbors—particularly in the South China Sea—fills many observers with apprehension.
If China plans to defend to use its large and powerful navy to uphold the international order and help maintain freedom of navigation on the high seas, few outside China would argue with that. If on the other hand China intends to use it to buttress excessive territorial claims and intimidate its neighbors again, all bets are off.
Either way, China’s new aircraft carriers will be at the forefront of whatever it does.
Update: the article was updated on 9/10 to reflect a consensus that Type 003 will be conventionally-powered, not nuclear. The follow-on Type 004 class will likely be nuclear-powered.