Recently featured imagery on Chinese internet forums appears to indicate — with the usual caveats — what China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier might look like. Apparently taken at a shipping exhibition held in China’s Guangdong province from June 6-8, the same exhibition where a model of a possible new variant of the Type 032 Qing-class submarine was displayed, the pictures of the model aircraft carrier may possibly provide some insight into China’s naval ambitions.
China currently has one aircraft carrier, the Soviet-designed Admiral Kuznetsov-class Liaoning (hull number 16), indirectly acquired in 1998 from Ukraine with the declared aim of turning it into a floating hotel (as the ex-Soviet aircraft carriers Kiev and Minsk were). Originally an unfinished hull without propulsion, the conventionally powered vessel was taken by tugboat, undergoing a lengthy and remarkable voyage from the Black Sea to China via the Strait of Gibraltar and the Cape of Good Hope. From 2005, China began refurbishing and refitting the vessel, culminating in sea trials in August 2011. Unlike “super carriers” such as the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the Liaoning is not equipped with steam-catapults for launching aircraft. Instead, the carrier utilizes a “ski-jump” ramp to launch aircraft, like the J-15 (derived from the Su-27 family of fighter jets), off its deck. Despite being commissioned and entering service in September 2012, the Liaoning is not yet combat ready and is mainly being used for the training of naval and aviation crews.
The model on display at the exhibition depicts a sizable aircraft carrier capable of carrying large numbers of aircraft, and featuring four catapult launching systems. Notably, in addition to the fighter aircraft and helicopters, the model depicts an airborne early warning aircraft on the carrier deck, providing the carrier and its escort vessels with an integral source of radar-derived situational awareness, which helps expand the carrier-centered formation’s air defense perimeter. The Liaoning’s lack of launch catapults does not allow for the takeoff of such heavy aircraft. There is speculation that this putative carrier will be nuclear-powered, but at present this remains speculation at best. An interesting feature of the model is the hull number, 18. The Liaoning’s hull number is 16, seemingly implying that another aircraft carrier, likely different from number 18 (i.e., a Liaoning “copy”), will be built as well. Such indicators suggest that China is planning to build at least two carrier classes, one based on the Admiral Kuznetsov–class design, and a new catapult-equipped design. It is unclear if and when this new carrier design will be constructed.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
China’s aircraft carrier ambitions have constituted a large part of discussions and speculation surrounding Beijing’s naval future. Since 2011, Chinese officials have expressed their intention to build aircraft carriers to supplement the Liaoning. In April 2013, Rear Admiral Song Xue, deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), reportedly told foreign defense attaches that China’s next carrier “will be larger and carry more fighter [aircraft].” The aircraft carrier model appears to validate this assertion.
In early 2014, Lianoning Provincial Secretary Wang Min was quoted by Xinhua news agency as saying that the Dalian Shipyard located in Liaoning province, which refurbished the Liaoning, will build a second carrier within “six years,” and that China would eventually acquire four aircraft carriers, suggesting three carriers will be built to accompany the Liaoning. Additionally, recent statements in a Chinese military journal article indicate that the first Chinese-built aircraft carrier will be ready by the end of 2017, with an additional two ready by the end of 2019. The article claims that these carriers would be enlarged variants of the Liaoning’s design and feature a hybrid ski-jump/catapult launch system. Notably, the journal article described the future carriers as using an electromagnetic catapult, like that used on the new American Ford–class aircraft carrier, instead of the more commonplace and technologically mature steam-powered catapult. If true, these statements conflict with the design features depict on the model on display at the exhibition.
While the model features catapults, it does not feature a ski-jump ramp. Nevertheless, such plans as stated in the journal article have come under scrutiny by some Western analysts, who find the timeframe for construction too ambitious. Irrespective of how many aircraft carriers (of any type) China builds by the beginning of the next decade, the 2014 edition of the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on China’s military capabilities stated that “The first Chinese-built carrier will likely be operational sometime at the beginning of the next decade.” Notably, the report says that the carrier “will likely be operational” – not built, “sometime at the beginning of the next decade.” Given that China’s most recent surface combatant class, the Luyang III/052D-class, took almost two years to get the first vessel commissioned after being launched, a new large vessel as complex as a new aircraft carrier featuring new systems, will likely take a number of years to become operational, let alone ready for combat. The Pentagon’s report does not indicate whether this “first Chinese-built carrier” will be based on the Admiral Kuznetsov-class design – a Liaoning “copy” – or a brand new carrier design, like the one in the model on display at the exhibition.
It is possible that the model recently depicted in imagery on Chinese internet forums may be just that – a model of a possible design, not one actually being built. Yet it would still serve as an indicator of China’s naval ambitions, if not its actual plans. Models are not built or displayed without purpose, and while propaganda is a distinct possibility, analysts have noted that displayed models of Chinese designs should be taken seriously, as they tend to be a harbinger of things to come. Should China build launch catapult-equipped aircraft carriers, it would be able to provide extended air defense and early warning capabilities over its naval formations, as well as enable the PLAN to effectively carry out expeditionary warfare through airstrikes. The building of a significant number of aircraft carriers will also indicate a greater emphasis, but likely not a shift, towards sea control. This stands in contrast to the current dominant focus on anti-access area-denial (A2/AD), a sea denial strategy manifested by China’s focus on ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as submarines. Time will tell what China’s naval future will be, but this model of a new aircraft carrier design could be a useful indicator of that trajectory.