With the Chinese Navy, formally known as the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) rapidly enhancing their capabilities, one of their most prioritized programs in their long-term goal of fielding a “world-class military” by 2050 is that of developing, building, and fielding up to 8 aircraft carriers.
Since the 1970’s the Chinese have expressed interest in operating aircraft carriers. A big milestone in their aspirations to develop and operate aircraft carriers was the acquisition of the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne in 1985. Although Melbourne was stripped of all of its electronics, sensors, hardware, and its rudders were welded in place as the ship was going to be scrapped in China, the catapults and arresting gear were not removed. Chinese naval experts and architects took advantage of the situation, and to their surprise, much of the equipment was still in place.
HMAS Melbourne, San Diego, 1977
In 1995, China acquired former-Soviet aviation cruisers, Kiev, then in 2000, they acquired Minsk. Initially, they were sold to China to be scrapped, but they were both dismantled, analyzed and turned into theme parks and hotels.
Former Kiev, Binhai Aircraft theme park, Tianjin, China
Type 001 and Type 002
In 1998, Varyag, a 67,500 ton incomplete ex-Soviet aircraft carrier was purchased by a Macau-based venture for $20 million. By 2007, there were reports that the ship was being fitted out for service with the Chinese Navy. In 2011, it was announced that the carrier had been refitted and was undergoing sea trials. The carrier was named Liaoning and was handed over to the PLAN, but did not enter active service until 2016. Although the carrier is in PLAN service, it is used more as a vessel to train carrier pilots than anything.
Former Varyag, 68% complete
Essentially an improved Liaoning, CV-17, Type 002 “Shandong” began construction in 2013 and was completed in 2017. It underwent 18 month long sea trials and it formally entered service in 2019. It is China’s first indigenously developed and built aircraft carrier. Improvements over Liaoning included a decrease in the inclination of the ski jump ramp to 12° from the 14° ramp on Liaoning, an enlarged hangar, increased deck space, and a smaller island with 4 AESA radars and improved sensors.
Type 003, Under Construction
Although, the precise date of when the construction of Type 003 started is unknown, it has been estimated that initial work began sometime in 2015 or 2016. In June 2017, construction was reportedly delayed by electromagnetic and steam catapult tests which took place across several facilities in China. By November 2017, even though the new carrier would not be nuclear powered, the PLAN had developed an integrated electric propulsion system to power 003’s electromagnetic catapults and construction of the ship resumed. By July 2020, most of the ships modules had been constructed and began being assembled in a dry dock in Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. The ship is being constructed by China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC).
Although there have been little to no official statements concerning this new aircraft carrier, based on recent satellite images, images taken from aircraft taking off and landing at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, and videos leaked on social media, we are able to make many speculations about the new ship. The length of the vessel will be in excess of 300 meters, around the same length as modern American carriers like Nimitz-class and Gerald R. Ford-class, the beam of the vessel is at around 44.5 meters based on satellite images, and the rumored empty displacement of the vessel is around 78,000 tons with a full load displacement of 90,000 to 100,000 tons, comparable to the size of American carriers. Although this carrier will be as large as American carriers, it will only feature two elevators and based on recent images, it appears that it only have three (possibly four, but very unlikely) catapults, compared to four found on American carriers. There have long been debates on whether or not the new carrier would be conventional or nuclear powered, but recent images show piping for exhausts and construction of the carrier island/superstructure which is too large for that of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The carrier is expected to be launched in early 2022.
Type 003, leaked on TikTok (video removed)
Type 003, photo taken from landing airliner (catapult lines, island construction visible)
Latest images from June 9, 2021
China’s recent efforts to build a strong blue water navy have been largely successful with the commissioning of nearly 60 vessels in the last decade alone. China’s aircraft carrier program has been no less successful with China being able to quickly construct and field new helicopter carriers and aircraft carriers quickly and without obstruction or delay. China now has the means, motive, resources, and money to be constructing these new carriers and they plan on fielding up to 8 carriers by 2035. When this new carrier is completed within the next couple years, it will be among the largest carriers ever built, only second behind the carriers of the United States.
Because China has built all of these ships in such a short period of time, one issue that experts predict China will face is that all of these ships will have to undergo refits and upgrading at the same time in the future, putting a majority of China’s Navy out of service.