On a cold bright morning in December 2019, the naval base in the city of Sanya in the Chinese southern island province of Hainan hosted an event that signaled a significant shift in the power projection capability of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). In a ceremony watched over by President Xi Jinping, China’s first indigenously produced aircraft carrier, the Shandong (Type 002), was commissioned into the fleet. Its development, construction, and acceptance into service took place at a frighteningly fast pace — the carrier was only launched in early 2017 with sea trials beginning in May 2018 — and is a major statement of intent. The Shandong sends a message not only to those regional powers attempting to check China’s plans to exercise hegemony inside the nine-dash line disputed area of the South China Sea, but also to the bigger global powers. In particular, it’s a warning bell for the United States, which is increasingly concerned that the pace of Chinese ship building and military technology development will diminish its military dominance and allow growing Chinese assertiveness to expand into the wider Indian-Pacific region unconstrained.
Many naval analysts anxiously ask: Is this the case? Or is China’s new warship a paper tiger — a visually impressive statement that nevertheless will do little to challenge the United States’ and the West’s pre-eminence in carrier aviation and operations?
The PLAN Has Learned Fast
The Shandong’s design is derived from the old Soviet Kuznetsov class, specifically the Varyag, which was purchased as a hulk in 1995 then completed and refitted and brought into service as the Liaoning (Type 001) in 2012. The Liaoning was never intended to enter operational service; rather it was an evaluation vessel from which a more advanced PLAN carrier capability would evolve. This reflects a different ethos to carrier operations between the Russian designers of the Kuznetsov class and the new owners. Russian design saw the ship as a missile cruiser with a small air wing to provide fleet air defense. The Chinese concept follows the Western idea of carrier strike with the air wing as the principal combat component. This different approach is reflected in the way that the Liaoning was adapted and developed from its original design, its anti-ship missile silos removed to make way for fuel and weapons storage. The Shandong has incorporated significant and subtle refinements that point to its intended use in the carrier strike role – for example, the ski jump angle has been decreased from 14 degrees on the Liaoning to 12 degrees, an angle optimized for the Shenyang J-15 fighter the carrier is expected to field in its air wing. Other major changes include making the island smaller and moving it to allow eight more aircraft to be carried. It also has a second deck separating bridge and flight operations and features uprated Active Electronically Scanned Arrays (AESAs) for the powerful Type 346A S-band radar.
So, at nearly 70,000 tons at full load, 315 meters long and with a beam of 76 meters, the new carrier is not simply an upgrade to the Liaoning that many analysts had previously suggested. The Shandong is constructed for operational service and means business. But the design and approach to carrier operations suggest there are some critical deficiencies that may limit the ship’s potential in any future engagement against its U.S. rivals or even the new Queen Elizabeth and its sister the Prince of Wales (super carriers of the British Royal Navy or RN).
Is the Shandong a Paper Tiger?
The Shandong uses a Short Take-Off Barrier-Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) system to launch and recover its aircraft. Like the British RN carriers, it has a large ski ramp to assist take-off. The PLAN intends to operate the Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark fighter. The J-15 is an improved copy of the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 naval fighter and flown competently would be a match for Western counterparts in air-to-air combat. But while China has refined the Russian design with superior domestic weapons, radar, and avionics, the type carries severe limitations and is a problematic aircraft — it has an unstable flight control system, is underpowered, and has a high maximum take-off weight. The last factor means that either fuel or weapons payload needs to be compromised upon to successfully operate the aircraft. The J-15 would either have to launch with very light weapons loads or need to conduct air-to-air refuelling, a situation that puts the aircraft at a major disadvantage to Western naval aircraft types such as the F/A-18, the Lockheed F-35C, and the French Dassault Rafale. Following a number of fatal accidents, the aircraft was grounded for three months and Chinese media has referred cuttingly to the aircraft as the “flopping fish.”
By contrast the U.S. Navy nuclear-powered carriers use a Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) launch system, which nullifies the maximum take-off weight problem (which in any case is substantially less, the F/A-18F Super Hornet being nearly 3000 kg lighter empty weight). The French Marine Nationale Charles de Gaulle (R91) is also nuclear-powered with a CATOBAR system and while the Royal Navy Queen Elizabeth-class vessels are conventionally powered with a STOBAR system, the design been built specifically and optimized for operation of the F-35B STOVL aircraft and could, in theory at least, be converted to a future CATOBAR system.
The Shandong is driven by oil-fired engines, which limit its endurance by comparison to larger American counterparts. It is also unlikely to be able to generate the power requirements necessary to operate a future Electro Magnetic Air Launch System (EMALS) system, such as the one in the new USS Gerald R Ford (CVN-78), the first of the Ford-class carriers, or more importantly to operate future laser weapon systems, which will be necessary to defend the ship from emerging anti-ship threats such as hypersonic and ballistic missiles.
Compared to the air wing carried by Western carriers that carried by the Shandong is small, limited to 36 J-15s. This compares to 60 aircraft on a U.S. Nimitz-class vessel or 48 aircraft on a U.K. Queen Elizabeth class. When role variations such as the electronic warfare J-15D are included in the air wing complement, the aircraft available for the strike role is further reduced. The ski ramp extends across the entire beam of the ship, preventing aircraft storage forward such as can be undertaken in the Queen Elizabeth. Overall the flight deck design of the Shandong constrains aircraft management, impacting the achievable daily sortie rate, which is probably significantly less than that possible by the U.S. and U.K. carriers.
A significant capability gap exists in the comparative lack of airborne early warning (AEW) systems. Without a CATOBAR system, AEW capability is limited to rotary wing battlespace surveillance using the Changhe Aircraft Corporation (CAIC) Z-18J and Kamov KA-31 helicopters. These helo systems offer significantly less over-the-horizon detection capability than the U.S. E-3D, which is capable of deck launch from U.S. Nimitz- or Ford-class carriers.
The operating flaws of the Shandong’s principal aircraft point to a lack of appreciation of the design and operating unity necessary between the carrier and its air component, with each having been designed separately and then adapted.
The Future of China’s Aircraft Carriers
There have been suggestions that the J-15 may be replaced by the Shenyang J-31 Gyrfalcon fifth-generation fighter, an aircraft comparable in size to the F-35 and therefore deemed suitable for carrier operations. However, a report in the South China Morning Post stated that the Central Military Commission, China’s senior decision-making body, favored adopting the Chengdu Aerospace J-20 over the J-31. The J-20 Mighty Dragon is a large and heavy warplane, which struggles from China’s inability to produce indigenous engines or stealth capability able to match Western technology. Weight alone would make operations from a STOBAR carrier difficult if not prohibitive. Carrier operations would require the aircraft to be extensively modified. Thus the decision to favor the J-20 over the J-31 is presumably more about equipping future CATOBAR-installed aircraft carriers with an aircraft that can outperform F/A18s and Rafales in performance and air-to-air combat, although the lower radar cross section of an F-35 and its improved sensors would probably give that aircraft an advantage over the Chinese fighter.
The PLAN understands the limitations of its STOBAR system and its catapult trials program at the Huangdicun Airbase in Liaoning province has been underway for some time. Their catapult testing program began with the installation of an old steam launch system from the former Majestic-class carrier HMAS Melborne, which China purchased from Australia in 1985. This program has progressed to include study of an EMAL, a system that places less strain on aircraft during launch but is technically problematic.
Future Chinese carriers look certain to include CATOBAR, although they are intended still to be conventionally powered, potentially leaving power generation problems if EMAL is selected over steam as the launch system. The Type 003 is expected to launch in 2023 and is expected to weigh in at 85,000 tons. This carrier is likely to have learned the lessons of integrating carrier and air wing. and will be a step change in capability
Does the Shandong transition the PLAN from a brown-water navy to a blue-water one? Not yet. It probably still falls short of being able to compete with its Western counterparts,
But the Shandong is part of a journey, an important step in the development of China’s aircraft carrier capability and its evolution into a true blue-water navy. The PLAN trajectory of design and production cannot be matched in the West and is a development incline that will move China closer to matching U.S. naval and airpower dominance in the Indo-Pacific region.
James Maclaren is a London-based freelance writer who spends time in the Far East and specializes in defense and security affairs. Follow him on Twitter @james__maclaren.