China’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier may launch any day now. The carrier, which has been under construction at Dalian in China’s Liaoning province since 2015, was earlier expected to launch as early as Sunday, to coincide with the 68th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy.
According to Chinese news reports, scaffolding and assembly gantries around the carrier were removed earlier in April and the carrier’s hull was being painted. The South China Morning Post reported that the carrier’s expected Sunday launch was delayed because “tidal conditions were not conducive.”
The carrier, provisionally known as the Type 001A, is a domestically manufactured Chinese variant of the Soivet-designed Kuznetsov-class, which became the basis for the PLAN Liaoning, the only Chinese carrier in active service. Originally launched with the Soviet Navy in 1988, the Liaoning was purchased by China after the fall of the Soviet Union and refurbished to meet Chinese requirements.
The 001A will represent an iterative improvement on the Liaoning. With a displacement of 70,000 tonnes, the carrier is slightly heavier, with a similar length and width. Like the Liaoning, the Type 001A will incorporate a ski-jump launch system for aircraft and will not feature an advanced catapult-assisted launch system. As with the Liaoning, the airwing of the 001A will comprise up to 36 Shenyang J-15 multirole fighters.
Chinese Shenyang J-15 fighters have been observed undergoing testing for catapult-assisted take-off suggesting that future Chinese carriers may incorporate this technology. China may look to build as many as six aircraft carriers. The Liaoning and the Type 001A may serve primarily as more rudimentary training platforms for Chinese naval aviators and sailors to accrue carrier experience.
A growing fleet of aircraft carriers will gradually allow the PLAN to reliably project power beyond the first island chain and into the Western Pacific. In December 2016, the Liaoning, accompanied by five other vessels, navigated multiple first island chain choke points, including the Bashi Channel and the Miyako Strait. The carrier strike group entered the Western Pacific for the first time and sailed south to the South China Sea.
The Liaoning strike group, after visiting Hainan Island, then traveled north to its home port at Qingdao through the Taiwan Strait.
Even though the 001A may launch in the coming days, it will likely undergo sea trials for more than a year, with its eventual commissioning into the PLAN taking place in 2018 or 2019. China, in the meantime, has started work on its third aircraft carrier, which is provisionally named in the Type 002. Little is known about this second indigenously built carrier, but reports have suggested that the Type 002 will incorporate a conventional steam launch catapult.
The Type 002 may not launch until after 2020.