A Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson confirmed on Thursday that China is currently building an aircraft carrier in Dalian, a port city in northeastern China. The carrier will be China’s second, but the first to be indigenously-built. China’s current aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was Russian-made and purchased from Ukraine. The Liaoning was totally refitted by Beijing and commissioned in 2012.
This isn’t the first we’ve heard of China’s second aircraft carrier, but it’s the first time the Defense Ministry has official confirmed the project. Defense Ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun told the press that “relevant authority started the research and development of China’s second aircraft carrier, which is currently under independent design and construction.” He emphasized that the new carrier is home-grown — “designed independently by China.”
Earlier this fall, IHS Jane’s 360 carried photographs that appeared to show the carrier under construction at the Dalian shipyard. Back in March, Chinese media ran quotes from Chinese admirals about the new aircraft carrier – including news on the development of an electromagnetic launch system.
According to Yang, however, fighter jets on the new carrier will use a ski-jump to take off. The carrier will serve as a base for J-15 fighters (already in use on the Liaoning), Yang said, as well as “other ship-based aircraft” (likely to eventually include the J-31, a fifth-generation fighter currently under development). Yang added that the new carrier “will have new improvements in many aspects” compared to the Liaoning, but did not elaborate.
Yang said the new carrier will have a displacement of 50,000 tonnes, around the size of the Liaoning (and much smaller than U.S. Nimitz-class carriers, which displace over 100,000 tonnes). The size fits with previous estimates made by IHS Jane’s based on satellite imagery of the presumed carrier under construction at Dalian. The new carrier will be conventionally powered rather than nuclear powered, according to Yang. He declined to give an estimated timetable for the completion.
China’s current carrier, the Liaoning, is widely believed to be mainly for training purposes, allowing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to learn the ropes of operating an aircraft carrier. The second carrier is expected to go a step beyond that – taking the training wheels off, so to speak, and expanding the scope of possible missions.
According to Kanwa Defense Review, there’s a good chance that the next carrier will be based at a new facility on Hainan Island, near the South China Sea, rather than at Dalian. Ultimately, Chinese military sources have suggested the country should have at least three aircraft carriers active in its navy.
As Andrew Scobell, Michael McMahon, and Cortez A. Cooper noted in an essay for the Naval War College Review, China’s own advances in missile technology – so-called “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missiles — have caused some to declare the aircraft carrier obsolete. Yet Beijing is still investing massive amounts of time and capital to develop carrier capabilities for itself. That’s partially due to nationalism, as aircraft carriers are viewed as a global status symbol on par with nuclear weapons and space exploration capabilities. But the “decisive driver” of the program, according to Scobell et al, is Beijing’s strategic vision of a blue-water navy that can operate far beyond the first and second island chains.
Indeed, in its recent white paper detailing “China’s Military Strategy,” Beijing emphasized a global mission for its military, where “the armed forces will actively participate in both regional and international security cooperation and effectively secure China’s overseas interests.” For the PLAN in particular, that means a changing role, from a focus on defending the near seas to developing the ability to “protect the security of strategic SLOCs [sea lines of communication] and overseas interests, and participate in international maritime cooperation.” As a power projection tool, China’s second aircraft carrier will play a key role in those new missions.