China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier will soon launch in Dalian, Liaoning Province for drills and trial voyages, putting to the test proprietary technology meant to further Beijing’s expansion in the South and East China seas, the SCMP reported. A dock at the Dalian shipyard was being filled with water Sunday in preparation for the launch. The Chinese-made vessel is expected to enter service around 2020, joining China’s first and only aircraft carrier, a refurbished Ukrainian vessel known as the Liaoning.
The new ship, like its predecessor, will be conventionally propelled, as opposed to nuclear-powered, and feature a sloped flight deck known as a ski jump for aircraft takeoff. It is somewhat smaller than the Liaoning, with a displacement of around 50,000 tons compared to around 67,000 tons. The SCMP notes that “from the successful refitting of the Liaoning in 2011 and its commission a year later, China spent just five years to produce the 001A.”
China’s first home-built aircraft carrier awaits launch at a Dalian shipyard
Around 200 visitors and reporters gathered in Dalian on Sunday, expecting a launch ceremony to coincide with the 68th anniversary of the Chinese navy’s founding. The scaffolding around the ship, temporarily named the Type 001A, was removed and the deck was cleared, Shanghai-based news portal thepaper.cn reported, suggesting that the launch date was getting close. However, experts said tidal conditions yesterday were not conducive for a launch to mark the navy’s birthday, and expected a ceremony to take place in the next few days.
According to SCMP, the new vessel is designed to have more space for aircraft than the Liaoning, by some estimates letting the ship hold as many as 36 fighter jets, or 50% more than its predecessor. While the new carrier “differs little from the Liaoning as far as outward appearances go, its operational capabilities are vastly superior,” Chinese military expert Liang Fang told state-run China Central Television.
Commentaries published by party mouthpiece People’s Daily on the PLA Navy anniversary yesterday said a strong maritime force was crucial.
“Facing the increasingly complicated maritime security and sovereignty struggle, a strong navy is necessary to protect national sovereignty and maritime rights, overseas interests and take part in international cooperation,” one of the opinion pieces said.
Another commentary said the nation’s aircraft carrier fleet had participated in training in the western Pacific last year, and that the launch of a new carrier was a sign that China was mastering naval technology.
Nonetheless, military observers said the launch of the new carrier represented only modest progress in China’s military modernisation, given the technological gap between the PLA Navy and its most powerful rival in the Asia-Pacific region, the US Navy, which currently has 10 operational, nuclear-powered Nimitz-class carriers, which carry around 90 aircraft and helicopters and have a crew of 5,000 each.
The new vessel is expected to operate mainly in the South China Sea alongside the Liaoning, which in December held its second set of exercises in the contested waters since entering service. Adding another ship would enable an aircraft carrier to remain present there while the other is in for maintenance. This arrangement, combined with ports and airstrips China has built on man-made islands in the sea, aims to give Beijing aerial supremacy over a region it considers central to its national interest and to curtail U.S. activity there.
According to Nikkei, future Chinese aircraft carriers are likely to be built faster now that the country has amassed the design experience and technology to bring the first vessel to launch.
Confirming this, work on a second Chinese-made carrier has already begun. The vessel probably will employ a steam catapult to launch aircraft, retired Maj. Gen. Xu Guangyu told Chinese media. A third vessel which has yet to begin production is expected to use nuclear propulsion, eliminating the need to resupply fuel. Work on escort vessels and submarines for a carrier strike group is also underway.
Quoted by SCMP, Hong Kong-based military analyst Liang Guoliang said that with the launch of the Type 001A, China would still only have two carriers, with the new ship requiring two or three years before it was put into full service. He noted that the US has 10 carrier strike groups, with at least four deployed in the Asia-Pacific region.
“The US navy has 9.5 million tonnes of shipping, while China has just 400,000 tonnes, or 4 per cent of the US capability. The US also has different kinds of carrier-based fighters, including its advanced carrier variants of the F-35 fighter … while China just has the J-15,” Liang said. “Meanwhile, the US has more than 200,000 marines, while China is just trying to expand its force to 100,000.
“I think the Chinese military should realise that there are still huge gaps in both hardware and software between the two countries’ maritime capabilities.”
They probably do, which is why corporate espionage in the US is likely to intensify in the coming years as China rushes to cover the technological gap. And as China scrambles to catch up to the US fleet of aircraft carrier, it has also shown an eagerness to cover shortfalls in its submarine fleet: as reported on Friday, China is currently building the world’s largest submarine facility, which when operational later this year, will be able to build as many as 4 subs at the same time.