Chinese aircraft carrier programme

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Since the 1970s, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has expressed interest in operating an aircraft carrier as part of its blue water aspirations. In those days the country could not feed and house its population let alone finance the development of its military. The Chinese aircraft carrier programme only started in the 2000's.[1] In 2011, People's Liberation Army Chief of the General Staff Chen Bingde confirmed that China was constructing at least one aircraft carrier.[2] In September 2012, China's first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, was commissioned. Four years later, in November 2016, it was reported that Liaoning was combat ready. China has confirmed that it is constructing a second carrier that will be built entirely with indigenous Chinese designs. Similar to Liaoning, China's second carrier will also use a ski jump for takeoff.[3]

Since 1985, China has acquired four retired aircraft carriers for study, the Australian HMAS Melbourne and the ex-Soviet carriers Minsk, Kiev and Varyag. Reports stated that up to two 60,000-ton Type 001A aircraft carriers based on Varyag were due to be started by 2015.[4] Sukhoi Su-33s were the aircraft that seemed most likely to be flown from these carriers.[5] However, it seems that China's own multirole fighter, the Shenyang J-15, would instead be the candidate planes flown from them.[6][Note 1]

Acquisition of retired aircraft carriers[edit]

Chinese shipyards have gained some exposure to carrier design with the acquisition of retired hulls such as the Australian HMAS Melbourne acquired in 1985. The carrier was not dismantled for many years and according to some reports she was not completely broken up until 2002.[7]

Through various ventures, China has also purchased the ex-Soviet carriers Minsk[8] and Kiev. These carriers have become floating amusement parks for tourists.

There had been other plans to purchase foreign second-hand carriers in the past. For example, a possible deal between China and France for the sale of the Clemenceau fell through in 1997.[9]

ex-HMAS Melbourne[edit]

Chinese reverse-engineered a land-based replica of the steam catapult and landing system from that of HMAS Melbourne, and a J-8IIG was used to conduct take-off and landing trials on the land-based flight deck in April 1987, which was not finally confirmed officially until 27 years later in April 2014 by CCTV-13.[10][unreliable source?] Both the take-off and landing were conducted on the same day, and the test pilot was PLANAF pilot Li Guoqiang (李国强).[11][unreliable source?] The experience gained was applied to the Shenyang J-15.[12][irrelevant citation]


Several days after ex-Varyag went on its first-sea-trial in August 2011, ex-Kiev welcomed guests in its new role as a luxury hotel with a £9.6 million ($15.6 million) refit. The owners believe that China's naval ambitions, as well as a general curiosity about aircraft carriers, will result in public interest.[13]

Liaoning (Type 001)[edit]

Liaoning before refurbishment

The 67,500 ton ex-Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag (Kuznetsov class), which was only 70% completed and floating in Ukraine, was purchased through a private Macau tourist venture in 1998. Following her troublesome tow to Dalian shipyard, the carrier underwent a long refit. Varyag had been stripped of any military equipment as well as her propulsion systems prior to being put up for sale. In 2007 there were news reports that she was being fitted out to enter service.[4][14]

On 10 August 2011, it was announced that the refurbishment of Varyag was complete, and that it was undergoing sea trials.[15][16]

J-15 Flying Shark

On 14 December 2011, DigitalGlobe, an American Satellite imaging company, announced that while scouring through pictures taken December 8, they had discovered the retrofitted Varyag undergoing trials, DigitalGlobe further stated that their images captured the ship in the Yellow Sea where it operated for 5 days.[17]

In September 2012, it was announced that this carrier would be named Liaoning, after Liaoning Province of China. On 23 September 2012, Liaoning was handed over to the People's Liberation Army Navy, but was not yet in active service.[18]

In November 2012, the first landing was successfully conducted on Liaoning with Shenyang J-15.[19]

Acquisition of designs[edit]

In addition to the acquisition of retired aircraft carriers of foreign navies, the PLAN has been actively purchasing foreign aircraft carrier designs as well. One such example was its effort to purchase the blueprints for proposed conventional take off/landing ships from Empresa Nacional Bazan of Spain; the 23,000 ton SAC-200 and the 25,000 ton SAC-220 designs. Negotiations started between 1995 – 1996 but did not result in any purchase. However, the Spanish firm was paid several million US dollars in consulting fees, indicating the probable transfer of some design concepts.[9]

Early plans[edit]

The first official plan of PLAN aircraft carrier development dated back on March 31, 1987 when the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense approved the plan on the aircraft carrier and the next generation nuclear submarine for PLAN submitted by the then commander-in-chief of PLAN, Liu Huaqing. The original plan was to be progressed in stages, with basic research to be completed by the end of the 7th 5-year plan, and development of the platform and aircraft to be completed by the end of the 8th 5-year plan. By 2000, construction was to begin when ordered.[citation needed]

To prepare the commanders needed for the future aircraft carriers, the Central Military Commission approved the program of training jet fighter pilots to be future captains in May 1987, and the Guangzhou Naval Academy (Chinese: 广州舰艇学院; pinyin: Guǎngzhōu jiàntǐng xuéyuàn) was selected as the site.[9]

However, Liu Huaqing’s plan proved to be too ambitious as the domestic Chinese industry at the time could not meet the goal demanded by the plan. As a result, the plan was drastically scaled back to basic research level and the date for an aircraft carrier entering PLAN service was postponed and eventually put on hold. In the meantime, pilot candidates for warship captain training was also altered, with candidates switched to ship-borne helicopter pilots, because it was considered that naval helicopter pilots with much more ship-borne aviation experience would be better prepared than the land-based jet fighter pilots who lack ship-borne aviation experience.[citation needed]

Current status[edit]

In mid-2007, Chinese domestic sources revealed that China had purchased a total of four sets of aircraft carrier landing systems from Russia[20] and this was confirmed by Russian manufacturers. However, experts disagreed on the usage of these systems: while some have claimed that it is a clear evidence of the construction of an aircraft carrier, others claim these systems are used to train pilots for a future ship. In August, 2008, Mr. Huang Qiang (黄强), the speaker of the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense announced to the public at a news conference that China had mastered all of the technologies for an aircraft carrier, and would build aircraft carriers in the future when the time was deemed right.[citation needed]

According to the Nippon News Network (NNN), research and development on the planned carriers is being carried out at a military research facility in Wuhan. NNN states that the actual carriers will be constructed at Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai.[21] Kanwa Intelligence Review reports that the second carrier to be constructed will likely be assigned to Qingdao.[22]

According to a February 2011 report in The Daily Telegraph, the Chinese military has constructed a concrete aircraft carrier flight deck to use for training carrier pilots and carrier operations personnel. The deck was constructed on top of a government building near Wuhan (Wuhan Technical College of Communication campus next to Huangjiahu).[23]

On 7 June 2011, People's Liberation Army Chief of the General Staff Chen Bingde confirmed that China was constructing its own aircraft carrier. He stated he would provide no further details until it was complete.[2]

On 30 July 2011, a senior researcher of the Academy of Military Sciences said China needed at least three aircraft carriers. "If we consider our neighbours, India will have three aircraft carriers by 2014 and Japan will have three carriers by 2014, so I think the number (for China) should not be less than three so we can defend our rights and our maritime interests effectively." General Luo Yuan.[24] In July 2011, a Chinese official announced that two aircraft carriers were being built at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai.[25][26] On 21 May 2012, Taiwan's intelligence chief Tsai Teh-sheng told the Legislative Yuan that the PLA Navy plans to build two carriers, scheduled to start construction in 2013 and 2015 and launch in 2020 and 2022 respectively.[27] On 24 April 2013, Chinese Rear Admiral Song Xue confirmed that China will build more carriers and these will be larger and will carry more fighter-planes than Liaoning.[28]

Type 001 and Type 001A[edit]

In December 2013, China's Central Military Commission told Duowei News it planned to commission two Liaoning-pattern aircraft carriers by 2020, designated as Type 001 (Liaoning) and Type 001a (Shandong). Contracts have been awarded to China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation to build the two carriers. The cost is projected to be US$9 billion.[29] Type 001 aircraft carrier, is the first aircraft carrier commissioned into the People's Liberation Army Navy Surface Force. It is classified as a training ship, intended to allow the Chinese Navy to experiment, train and gain familiarity with aircraft carrier operations. The second carrier with supposed name Shandong (Type 001a) began in 2013 and launched in April 2017.[citation needed] The first testing in open waters for Type 001a will start in February 2018. The Type 001A is expected to go into full service by the end of 2018.

The 001A is a conventionally powered ski jump carrier with a displacement of around 70,000 tonnes.[30] It is likely to be powered by old fashioned oil-fired boilers and steam turbines, though previously there has been speculation that it could be gas-turbine propelled.[31] There are some evident differences from the Soviet built Liaoning.[clarification needed] It is the country's second aircraft carrier after the completion of Liaoning, and the first built domestically, based on the old Soviet Kuznetsov design.

Type 002 and Type 002a[edit]

The first Chinese-designed aircraft carrier, known as Type 002, is to be an entirely different design than Types 001 (Liaoning) and 001A (Shandong).[citation needed]

On 31 December 2015, a spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of Defense confirmed that China is designing its third aircraft carrier.[32][33]

In 2015, media reports stated that both an EMALS and a steam-powered catapult were constructed at the Huangdicun naval base for testing; this is thought to indicate that the Type 002 class as well as future PLAN carriers could possibly be CATOBAR carriers.[34]

The construction of the first Type 002 class aircraft carrier started in March 2017.[35] It will have a displacement of around 85,000 tonnes.[30] An estimated launch date for the Type 002 carrier is 2020.

Type 003[edit]

The Type 003 aircraft carrier is a planned third generation Chinese-designed and advanced nuclear-powered aircraft carrier design which will allow Type 003 to travel great distances, unlike the Type 001 and Type 001a which can only be used in the South China Sea. Like the Type 002, it will feature an integrated electric propulsion system that will allow the operation of electromagnetic launch catapults similar to the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) used by the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers of the United States Navy. It could also have enough electricity to power Chinese laser weapons and railguns currently under development. [36][37][38][39][40][41] It will have a displacement of at least 100,000 tons.

Development of carrier-based aircraft[edit]

China has also developed a carrier-based fighter aircraft, the Shenyang J-15 from the Russian Sukhoi Su-33, but featuring Chinese technologies and avionics from the J-11B program.[6] On 25 November 2012, it was announced that at least two Shenyang J-15's had successfully landed on Liaoning.[19][42] The pilot credited with having achieved the first landing was Dai Mingmeng (戴明盟).[43] According to Chinese media reports, the J-15 cannot take off Liaoning with a full weapons and fuel load exceeding 12 tons, being unable to get off the carrier’s ski jump ramp.[44] The Shenyang J-31 is a fifth generation fighter aircraft being developed by China that may in future be adopted for carrier use.[citation needed]

There are unconfirmed reports of a J-15A catapult compatible fighter being tested on an Electromagnetic (EMALS type) catapult. This is thought to likely have occurred at the Huangdicun facility.[45]

Future plans[edit]

The PLA Navy wants to establish at least two aircraft carrier battle groups by 2020. One of the battle groups is to be deployed in the East China Sea, while the other is to be deployed in the South China Sea. Speaking to the Chinese communist party-run Xinhua News, Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo said the carriers would "defend China's sovereignty of the islands and reefs, maritime rights and overseas interests." Zhuo is a member of the Expert Consultation Committee for the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the official name of the Chinese navy.

On the longer term PLAN may also operate carrier battle groups from Gwadar or Seychelles to protect vital trade routes which may endanger China's energy security in the case of a conflict. Ultimately, a Chinese aircraft carrier would be escorted by a half dozen or so cruisers, destroyers, frigates and submarines. One possible configuration would be two Kunming-class Type 052D air defense destroyers, three Zhou Shan-class Type 054A frigates for anti-submarine work, and a Type 095 nuclear-powered attack submarine. In 2016, China established her first overseas naval base in Djibouti, which will provide necessary support for Chinese fleet and troops.

China has reportedly begun testing designs for arsenal ships.

List of ships[edit]

Hull Number Name Class Builder Launched Commissioned Home Port Status
CV-16 辽宁 / Liaoning Type 001 Mykolaiv Shipyard / Dalian Shipbuilding 4 December 1988 25 September 2012 Qingdao Naval Base Active
CV-17 Type 001A Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Company 26 April 2017 Estimated 2019 Launched and fitting out[46]
CV-18 Type 002 Jiangnan Shipyard (Group) Co. Ltd. Estimated 2020 Estimated 2023 Under construction
CV-19 Type 002a Jiangnan Shipyard (Group) Co. Ltd. Planned
CV-20 Type 003 Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Company Planned

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The J-15 is based on the Su-33.


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