With little fanfare, China has probably started construction on its first indigenously-built aircraft carrier. Images from Chinese social media and satellite imagery from earlier this year, acquired by IHS Jane‘s 360, suggest that the new carrier has been under construction at the Dalian shipyard. The new carrier is reportedly using the same dry dock that was used to upgrade and refurbish the Varyag, a Soviet-designed and built Admiral Kuznetsov-class multirole carrier, into the Liaoning, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy’s sole aircraft carrier. The Liaoning was commissioned three years ago, in September, 2012. Analysts believe that China is planning to field a four-carrier navy. An image posted by a Weibo user earlier this year (above) purports to show progress on the carrier at the Dalian shipyard.
Satellite imagery analysis by Jane‘s reveals some features of the carrier’s physical dimensions. Specifically, the report notes that the dry dock support layout suggests the final carrier will have a hull around 270 meters with a beam of around 35 meters. Imagery in February showed a hull length of “150 to 170 m in length with a beam of about 30 m.” Preparations for the carrier have been ongoing at the Dalian shipyard since at least late-February this year, which is when Jane‘s first acquired satellite imagery. For comparison, the United States’ 100,000 ton Nimitz-class supercarriers feature a hull length of 333 meters with an overall beam of 77 meters and waterline beam measurement of 41 meters. The new Chinese carrier will be smaller than any carrier currently operated by the United States. In all likelihood, it’s final dimensions and tonnage may rival India’s ongoing second indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-2), the INS Vishal. The Vishal, currently in its design phase, will displace 65,000 tons is 300 meters in length with a beam of 61 meters.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that China is already working on constructing its first homemade carriers. The Liaoning was mostly an exercise in prestige. The carrier lacks many of the features that make a carrier like the U.S. Nimitz– and Ford-class supercarriers so formidable. Additionally, its ability to sustain a high sortie rate is limited by its very design. There are several questions that we’ll want to keep an eye on with China’s new homemade carriers. First, are these vessels going to be true flattop carriers or will they be short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) ski-jump carriers (only Russian, Indian, and Chinese carriers use this design)? Second, there is the question of propulsion. It’s incredibly unlikely that China’s first home-made carrier will be nuclear-powered. Rather, expect this ship to be conventionally powered (Dave Majumdar over at The National Interest explores the propulsion issue in some more detail).
Carriers play a curious role in the PLAN’s strategic approach to the region (Greg Austin and I discussed some of the questions around Chinese carriers on an old episode of The Diplomat‘s podcast). In general, China has favored asymmetric anti-access/area-denial systems, but that doesn’t mean it can’t and won’t pursue additional carriers for its fleet. As its latest white paper on defense emphasized, Beijing is looking to bolster its naval capabilities as it emerges as an expeditionary and global naval power. Additionally, with an ever-expanding number of frigates, destroyers, and submarines in its inventory, China will be able to adequately protect its carriers at sea—an important requirement for any navy that wishes to operate expeditionary carrier groups, like the United States.