The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) may induct its first indigenously designed and developed Type 001A aircraft carrier Shandong ahead of schedule, according to media reports.
The new 65,000-ton warship, an improved variant of the PLAN’s only operational aircraft carrier, the 60,000-ton Type 001 Liaoning — a retrofitted Soviet-era Admiral Kuznetsov-class multirole aircraft carrier, could join the PLAN as early as 2018, two Chinese military sources revealed to the South China Morning Post last week.
Based on previous reports, the PLAN anticipated a 2020 induction date. The new carrier is expected to serve in the PLAN’s North Sea Fleet or East Sea Fleet. One of the reasons for the likely earlier induction of the ship is better than expected test results of key systems of the carrier including the carrier’s propulsion system.
“Steam turbines of [the carrier] will all start to formally enter the mooring test phase, which will be ahead of our schedule in overall progress,” Hu Wenming, general manager of the Type 001A project, said on state television last Thursday. Furthermore, according to images of the carrier circulating on the internet, equipment installation work on the Shandong has almost been completed.
The Type 001A was launched in April at the Dalian shipyard in Liaoning Province by China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, as my colleague Ankit Panda reported for The Diplomat.
Like its sister ship, the PLAN’s sole operational aircraft carrier, China’s new carrier will be able to accommodate up to 24 Shenyang J-15 multirole fighter jets, a variant of the fourth-generation Sukhoi Su-33 twin-engines air superiority fighter, as well as up to ten rotary wing aircraft such as Changshe Z-18, Ka-31, or Harbin Z-9 helicopters.
The Shandong will be equipped with a so-called ski-jump assisted Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) launch system, rather than more advanced catapult-assisted launch system. This brings a number of disadvantages as I noted elsewhere:
Given the STOBAR system, aircraft launched from the carrier will also have a more limited operational range due to the fact that they need to expend a considerable amount of fuel during take-off in comparison to aircraft launched with a catapult system as is the case in the U.S. Navy.
In addition, aircraft launched with a STOBAR system usually also carry lighter armament, reducing the ship’s overall combat power. However, there is speculation that the PLAN’s next carrier, dubbed Type 002, will be using more modern catapult technology.
The PLAN’s plans to field up to six carrier strike groups in the coming decades. Both the Liaoning and Shandong will likely primarily serve as test platforms for Chinese carrier-based naval aviation and technology demonstrators. Nevertheless, China has been stepping up its carrier activities in recent months. In July, the Liaoning entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) following a port visit to the former British colony of Hong Kong earlier that month.