003 and More: An Update on China’s Aircraft Carriers

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003 and More: An Update on China’s Aircraft Carriers

Over the past year, disparate elements of the Chinese Navy’s carrier development program have continued to progress and come together.

003 and More: An Update on China’s Aircraft Carriers

The Jiangnan shipyard showing carrier 003 under assembly.

Credit: Weibo

As another year passes, additional developments in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) carrier program continue to be sighted and confirmed, in spite of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, geopolitical tensions between the United States and China show no sign of easing. Media interest in Chinese military and naval developments shows no sign of easing either, particularly with regard to speculation about the future path of Chinese carrier development.

This article will review some of the developments and rumors in the Chinese carrier sphere that have occurred since The Diplomat published a similar piece in mid-2019, as well as further clarifying some continuing confusions over the designations of PLAN carriers.

And Then There Were Two…

As expected, the PLAN commissioned its second aircraft carrier, CV-17 Shandong, on December 17, 2019. Shandong joins CV-16 Liaoning, its sister ship and the basis for CV-17’s overall design and configuration. Since entering service late last year, Shandong has embarked on multiple training cruises, with at least one instance where Shandong and Liaoning were both out at sea simultaneously.

The entry into service of CV-17 marks the Chinese Navy’s entry into a rare group of nations with more than one aircraft carrier in commission, though of course it goes without saying in the year 2020 that significant workup and training will be required before the PLAN achieves more robust and mature carrier operations. Nevertheless, the domestic construction of a new carrier from keel to island and from launch to commissioning, and the relatively short elapsed time for this process (keel laid in early 2015, vessel commissioned in late 2019) will provide important experience and reassurance for the navy and shipbuilding industry in their ability to deliver carriers into the future, particularly for the shipyard involved in this case, Dalian.

The situation with the airwing of CV-16 and CV-17 is somewhat less clear. The PLAN’s current lone carrierborne fighter type is the J-15; as of late 2019 only 24 J-15 fighters have been confirmed to be in service with no indications of additional in-service airframes produced at that time. By early 2020, pictures and rumors emerged that another batch of improved J-15s were in production, said to include various improvements including more advanced radar, avionics and weapons. That said, the size of this batch is yet to be determined, and it is also unknown if these new production J-15s will only be compatible with the ski jump (STOBAR) carriers CV-16 and CV-17, or if they will have requisite modifications to also operate from the future catapult equipped (CATOBAR) carrier currently under construction, known as 003. It is also not known definitively if this new batch of J-15s will receive a new designation, though in some circles they have been dubbed “J-15B.”

The Movements of 003

One of the other significant developments in Chinese carrier progress is the pace of work on carrier 003 at Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai. As now established, 003 will be the Chinese Navy’s first CATOBAR carrier, and while it will remain conventionally powered, it will likely be significantly larger than Liaoning and Shandong, with a full displacement commonly cited at some 85,000 tons.

As long expected, the large super-block modules of 003 were moved from their initial fabrication area once they reached a sufficient stage of completion – this movement of modules occurred in mid-May 2020, whereupon they were transported to the staging area adjacent to drydock four in the same shipyard. One surprise of note was how the modules appear to have been moved overland rather than via the dedicated new submersible barge, which itself was launched on May 18. It is possible that the timing for 003’s construction made it such that it was prudent to move its super-blocks without the need for the barge. That said, it is very likely that future carriers built at Jiangnan will use the new barge for intra-yard transport. With a length of 250 meters, a beam of 60 meters, and a full load of 32,000 tons, and equipped with tracks matching the module fabrication facility, there are only so many roles this barge could fulfill.

In subsequent months, publicly attainable satellite imagery has followed the mating of 003’s super-blocks in drydock. The first modules were moved into the drydock around July 23, with progressively better satellite and aerial photographs documenting progress in the weeks following. The most recent high quality pictures, taken from the air in early September, show almost all of the super-blocks of the keel and base hull of the ship residing in the drydock, seemingly with only the front-most part of the bow yet to be seen. Work on the carrier has been accompanied by some media and think tank interest, characterized by varying degrees of accuracy.

Attempts have been made to estimate the length of the ship by measuring the individual hull super-blocks, and while the range of numbers produced are subject to error, it is widely accepted at this stage that even without the bow module visible, the total cumulative hull/waterline length is nearly 300 meters, already almost as long as the total 305-meter length (including flight deck) of the carriers Liaoning and Shandong. In fact, the sheer size of 003’s potential waterline length and beam (the latter being 40 meters at its widest point) has led some parts of the PLA-watching community to question if past rumors of 85,000 tons full displacement may have been an underestimate or perhaps reflective of an older configuration or design. It was known in earlier years that 003 was originally intended to field steam catapults rather than electromagnetic (EM) catapults, so it is plausible that changes in 003’s design and displacement may have occurred alongside the decision to equip it with EM catapults.

At this point in time, work will proceed for the super-blocks to be fully mated together including installation of the bow module, at which point additional modules forming the upper decks, hangar decks and flight deck will gradually be added, until the island is finally installed. Afterwards, the ship will be launched. Current projections set that for early to mid 2022 at the earliest. After launch, the ship will be fitted out with its relevant mission systems, including its much awaited EM catapults. Only then will it proceed to sea trials and enter service, under the expected pennant number CV-18.

Numbers and Nukes

The visible progress on carrier 003 and its impending launch leads observers naturally to wonder what will follow. For many years, it has been speculated that the Chinese Navy will seek to field at least six aircraft carriers, which has gained prominence in mainstream commentary thanks to some media outlets suggesting the PLAN will seek six carriers by 2035. It is also widely accepted in the PLA watching community that the final goal for PLAN carrier development is large, nuclear-powered supercarriers not dissimilar to US Nimitz- and Ford-class CVNs, but the timetable for their emergence is not known.

With two shipyards (Dalian and Jiangnan) proving they are capable of constructing carriers, the question now becomes when the next Chinese carrier will emerge after 003. It is expected that additional carriers adopting the 003 design will be built before the PLAN advances to a nuclear powered design, but it’s not known how many 003 pattern carriers may be built. It is also not known if further 003 pattern carriers will also be designated “003” or if the “00X” designation represents successive carrier hulls rather than carrier designs. 

Interestingly, at least one Chinese-language PLA insider with an established long term track record has himself dismissed foreign media expectations of “six carriers by 2035,” remarking that the Chinese Navy’s plans spoke of 10 or more carriers; however, it is unclear when this would occur by, whether by 2035 or later. That remarked carrier count represents proper aircraft carriers, not including the previously discussed 076 assault carrier, which is spoken of as an amphibious assault ship instead. Nevertheless, such numbers for future Chinese carriers can rightly considered as fantastical and speculative at this stage. But with both Dalian and Jiangnan demonstrating their ability to produce carriers, the potential for dual shipyard carrier production now exists – and a decade ago in 2010 the idea of the PLAN fielding some 39 high end Aegis-type destroyers by 2024 would have seemed fantastical as well, so only time will tell.

KJ-600, Eye of the Fleet

The much anticipated carrierborne fixed wing airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft made its first flight in 2020 as well, punctuating a fairly eventful year. KJ-600 (also known as H-600) was one of the long-expected aircraft to emerge as part of Chinese carrier development, and initial rumors and images – blurry, as per tradition – of KJ-600’s maiden flight emerged in July and August of this year. 

As expected, KJ-600 adopts a conventional dual propeller, rotodome configuration similar to that of the E-2 family. The airframe appears to be somewhat different from the Y-7 and the JZY-01 demonstrator derived from it, and may represent a clean sheet design altogether. Naturally, media commentary leapt to comment on its similarity to the E-2 family either as a copy or a knockoff. Leaving aside the fact that physics works the same regardless if one is American or Chinese (or Russian), it should not come as a surprise that the PLAN would adopt a mature and proven airframe and propulsion configuration for its carrierborne AEW&C over a more unique or bleeding edge type, so as to mitigate risk, cost and development time, as part of an already ambitious carrier development program.

Nevertheless, fixed wing carrierborne AEW&C are a vital and essential part to any navy that seeks to field a robust and capable carrier airwing, and their ability to enhance a carrier group’s offensive and defensive capabilities and overall situational awareness and network-centric warfare is unmatched by any other platform type that will exist in the near future. KJ-600 will likely remain in testing for at least another two to three years, but given the Chinese aerospace industry’s extensive experience in developing, testing and building various AEW&C types over the years (KJ-2000, KJ-200, ZDK-03, and KJ-500), it is likely the structural and aerodynamic aspects of the aircraft will present more novelty than its radar or associated control and datalinking systems. 

Looming Carrierborne Stealth

The Chinese 5th generation carrierborne fighter has also seen some movement in expectations, with some semi-official remarks from certain industry sources suggesting the FC-31 derived fighter will make its maiden flight in 2021. This aircraft has also been long awaited, and a 2021 maiden flight would comfortably fit within the range of projections made from past years.

Otherwise, pictures of the FC-31 demonstrators (specifically airframe number 31003, also known as the flying “V2” demonstrator) being tested continue to leak out once every few months, which could correspond to work relevant to their carrierborne, PLA-funded variant. As always, it is part of dutiful responsibility to remind readers that the “J-31” designation doesn’t exist for any Chinese fighter, and that the “J-31” is actually the FC-31 export fighter proposal instead. Whether the proper, PLA-funded carrierborne FC-31 derivative will be called “J-31” or “J-35” or some other designation is not yet known.

What’s in a Name?

From mid-2019 to the second half of 2020, many disparate elements of the Chinese Navy’s carrier development have continued to progress and come together. 

However, one phenomenon that seems to persist among some media outlets, authors, and even think tanks, is confusion surrounding the proper designation of which carriers are “002” versus “003.” Some media outlets continue to describe the 85,000 ton CATOBAR carrier being built at Jiangnan as “002” rather than 003. This likely reflects the previous common assumption that CV-17 Shandong was designated “001A.” However, the designation of CV-17 Shandong was definitively settled on December 17, 2019, when the designation “002” was literally plastered in bold red words on a giant plaque at the carrier’s commissioning ceremony.

From the perspective of journalistic, academic and professional accuracy, it is somewhat jarring to see  out-of-date and incorrect designations still in use. The names of these carriers might not be overtly consequential, but for the purposes of resolving confusion and creating consistency, it is likely desirable for various commentators and authors to acquaint themselves with the correct nomenclature.