The People’s Liberation Army Navy of China (the PLA Navy) is perhaps the fastest growing and most ambitious navy in the world. After decades of focusing on coastal defence, the PLA Navy is for the first time ever venturing into the world’s oceans and is prepared to fight for supremacy in the region. In order to back up its lofty territorial claims and confirm its status as a means of projecting the country’s power to the world, the PLA Navy has initiated a large-scale programme to build an aircraft carrier fleet.
All That Money Can Buy
In developing its navy, China of course takes its cue from the global trendsetter and main potential enemy, namely the United States. However, it is basing its aircraft carrier programme primarily on Soviet developments. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that China, for the time being at least, is directly continuing the work that Russian shipbuilders were carrying out a quarter of a century ago. And this is not surprising, given that they have used Soviet examples as their point of origin.
First, let us briefly talk about the Soviet aircraft carrier programme. After the unsuccessful attempts to build “Stalin’s Big Fleet,” as it was called , which was supposed to include aircraft carriers (the first such proposals were heard when the Russian Empire was still in existence), the Soviet Navy was forced to put aircraft carriers – which had in any case been labelled “weapons of imperial aggression” – on the backburner for a long time. The first Soviet carrier ships were a rather bizarre kind of hand-me-down, having been developed from helicopter carriers, even though they were equipped with cruise missiles and could be officially classified as aircraft carrying cruise ships (or simply aircraft carriers in the nomenclature of armed forces around the world). All of the seven cruise ships built were officially part of Project 1143 (codename “Krechyet,” meaning gyrfalcon). And despite the fact that they displayed a certain kinship, they were nevertheless divided into three groups.
The first four ships could rightly be called cruisers, as they were, broadly speaking, heavy missile cruisers with a flight deck for helicopters and Yak-38 class vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft “attached to the side.” The next two were primarily aircraft-carrying ships with an extended flight deck that included a large ramp and arresting gear which made it possible to use modifications of full-fledged land fighter aircraft. The logical development of these ships was Project 1143.7 – the Ulyanovsk aircraft carrier, whose construction was brought to a halt by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Ulyanovsk was to be the Soviet Union’s first full-fledged aircraft carrier, a nuclear ship with an aircraft catapult. The now rudimentary missile launchers were supposed to have been removed from the latest ships in the series, and they were to become “clean” aircraft carriers (although it is entirely possible in this alternate reality that the Soviet Navy would nevertheless have called them cruisers).
The ramps on Soviet ships made it possible to reduce the take-off roll distance significantly and leave the flight deck with a good thrust-to-weight ratio (the correlation between engine power and the weight of the aircraft). Arresting gears were used for landing – steel wire ropes designed to be caught by the aircraft’s arresting hook. In other countries, the ramps were used to increase the take-off weight of planes with a short take-off, such as the Harrier Jump Jet, which allows a greater fuel capacity and combat load to be taken. On the one hand, ramps ensure ease of operation and reliability; on the other hand, however, they do not allow for heavy aircraft to take off – primarily long-range radar detection aircraft – and limit the take-off weight of aircraft, even fighters, especially when the ship is travelling at low speeds and in unfavourable weather conditions (no head winds, as well as high temperatures, which can reduce the thrust of the jet engines). Aircraft catapults do not have these limitations. However, the modern catapult mechanism is rather complicated.
The fates of the ships that were built as part of Project 1143 were various. The majority of them left Russia, with China purchasing three in one go. One ship was sold to South Korea (for metal scraps); another was bought by the Indian Navy (to be upgraded and introduced into the fleet under the name Vikramaditya); a third ship (the Ulyanovsk) was dismantled for scrap at a shipyard in Ukraine; and a fourth one remained a part of the Russian Navy (the Admiral Kuznetsov). Officially, China purchased the aircraft carriers so they could turn them into themed attractions and/or hotels, and the first two (Kiev and Minsk) are indeed being used for this purpose (although they were studied by the military and shipbuilders beforehand).
It was a different story altogether with the third ship they bought – the Varyag – however. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ship was around 70 per cent complete. In 1998, the hull was bought by a Chinese dummy company for $27 million. The official reason for the purchase was to turn the ship into a casino and hotel. However, the original plan was always to complete the ship’s construction and introduce it into the country’s naval fleet . The Varyag only arrived in China in 2002, and it had quite the ride getting there. Active work to restore the hull, remove the corrosion, complete the construction of and re-equip the ship began in 2005. And it would seem that the Chinese shipbuilders had to buy some of the required components (including the power plant) in Ukraine and Russia. What is more, the purchase by the Chinese side of the technical documentation for Project 1143.6 in Russia in the 1990s would have helped – while all Soviet carriers were built at the Black Sea Shipyard in Ukraine, they were all designed at the Nevskoe Design Bureau in St. Petersburg, so it is safe to assume that the documentation could only have been obtained there . It was not until 2011, when the work on the ship was nearing completion, that China officially acknowledged the carrier was scheduled to become part of its fleet. It would, of course, have been silly on the part of the Chinese authorities to continue to conceal their intentions. The ship’s maiden run was carried out in August of the same year, and in September 2012, it was officially made part of the naval fleet.
The carrier was given the hull classification number 16 and named the Liaoning in honour of the province where the construction was completed – in the coastal city of Dalian, which is home to several large shipbuilding yards.
So what exactly did the Chinese side inherit from the USSR?
The First of Many
The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning is an upgraded version of a Soviet Project 1143.6 ship, almost identical to the Admiral Kuznetsov constructed under Project 1143.5 . At the same time, the Chinese side did not carry out any serious alterations to the ship; it was more about equipping the carrier and fitting out the hull. Consequently, the carrier is very similar to its Russian precursor in appearance and has comparable take-off and landing capabilities. However, the Chinese ship differs primarily in terms of its avionics and its short-range air defence systems. Considering the difference in time between the launches of the Liaoning and the Admiral Kuznetsov, it is little wonder that the Chinese version has superior avionics. As for air defence, however, the Liaoning is not as massively-equipped as its Russian counterpart.
Speaking of air defence, it would seem that China is taking its cue from Western navies, where this task is to a large degree handled by destroyers with powerful anti-aircraft missile systems and radars. So far the focus on this kind of air defence has led to the appearance of a universal class of warships, such as the British Type 45 destroyer (more commonly known as a Daring-class destroyer) and the Australian Hobart-class destroyer, which are essentially anti-aircraft vessels with limited capabilities in other areas. The priority task of U.S. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers is also to provide anti-aircraft defence for carrier strike groups (CSGs), although the conflicts of recent decades have made this work less noticeable and now highlight the use by these vessels of long-range cruise missiles on ground-based targets. In such cases, aircraft carriers take the furthest line of air defence – the responsibility of carrier-based fighter jets – while the ships themselves are equipped with the minimum in terms of short-range air defence systems that are primarily intended for targeting vessels that have broken through the initial lines of anti-ship missiles.
China has been following the Western example in recent years, building, in very short order, Type 052C (six ships) and Type 052D (seven of the twelve planned ships have been built). The actual technical specifications of these vessels are difficult to assess, but they very well could be at a world-leading level. Work is under way on Type 055 destroyers, which look promising. The size of these ships has led some experts to consider them cruisers rather than destroyers. The fact that so many destroyers (which, of course, are capable of carrying out a wide range of tasks on their own) are being built suggests that the goal is not to equip a single carrier group. It would appear that China has long since committed itself to the construction of a large ocean fleet, with aircraft carriers forming the core.
The first aircraft carrier wholly designed and made in China is currently under construction at the very same shipyard in Dalian where the Liaoning was completed. The codename for the ship is Type 001A aircraft carrier (accordingly, the codename for Liaoning was Type 001). The Chinese system for naming naval vessels is rather rigid and predictable, so the new ship will probably be named after one of the country’s provinces – for example, Guangdong, the most populous province in China and home to the Southern Fleet, which is responsible for protecting the South China Sea and its disputed islands. Judging from the pictures that we have seen (China tends to keep mum about the exact technical specifications of its vessels), Type 001A will be, at least in outward appearance, almost a carbon copy of the Liaoning. Certain differences can be seen in terms of the superstructure, which are based primarily on the assumption that Chinese avionics equipment will be installed (the expected reduction in the size of the superstructure did not happen).
Of far greater interest is the extent to which the interior of the ship has been redesigned: for example, will the size of the hangar be increased? The size and number of airplane lifts (two) also leaves a lot to be desired – it would be useful to be able to raise two fighters at least on one of those lifts. It will be interesting to see how the space freed up by the removal of the large quantity of anti-ship missiles will be used – as a simple “storeroom”? Or perhaps it will lead to a number of compartments being shifted around? What is for certain is that modern means of automation will significantly reduce the size of the crew. Around two thousand naval officers served on the original Soviet Project 1143.5 and 1143.6 carriers, which these days is a little excessive for a ship of its tonnage. To compare, the size of the crew required to operate the new Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier in the United States has been reduced by one-fifth from the previous Nimitz-class vessels . A smaller crew means smaller quarters and communal space as well – from living quarters to canteens and gyms.
On the whole, we can expect to see some cosmetic improvements in the Type 001A aircraft carrier – a larger hangar, more efficient take-off and landing, higher take-off weights (assuming improved dynamic performance), and improved avionics. The ship will be launched in the coming months. But this does not mean that work on the vessel is complete, simply that it will be completed while already at sea. This will free up the dock for construction to start on a new ship. In Soviet times, Project 1143 ships were built at the Black Sea Shipyard in Ukraine almost without interruption – as soon as one left for sea, construction of another began.
Chinese military programmes do not tend to be overly adventurous. Accordingly, the construction of the country’s second aircraft carrier (and the first of its own design) should not be too difficult.
There is much talk about what the new ship will be like, although it is mostly in the form of guesswork and speculation, as is usually the case with China’s military projects. It is highly likely that the second aircraft carrier wholly designed and made in China (and the third in the fleet), the hypothetical Type 002, will be equipped with aircraft catapults. China first experimented with catapults in the late 1980s, when it used technology from the Melbourne aircraft carrier it purchased , supposedly for scrap metal, to build a land-based rig similar to the Soviet NITKA . Later on, Chinese pilots learned how to take off from ramps similar to the ones that can now be found on the Liaoning. However, China recently opened its own testing centre, where there are two catapults, at least one of which is most probably electromagnetic, rather than steam. Electromagnetic catapults are a promising new kind of technology, and they promise higher energy conversion efficiency and greater ease of use than classic steam catapults. But they are extremely difficult to build from a technological point of view. At present, not a single aircraft carrier in the world has a fully operational electromagnetic catapult. The American Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) is equipped with a prototype electromagnetic catapult, but has not even been tested at sea yet due to technical issues.
In general, Chinese military programmes do not tend to be overly adventurous. Accordingly, the construction of the country’s second aircraft carrier (and the first of its own design) should not be too difficult. Schematically, it may resemble the Soviet Project 1143.7 Ulyanovsk, which was equipped with a ramp and two catapults. The reliability of the catapult will not be as critical in this case, however, because the fighters can take off from the ramp. It may be possible, therefore, to “risk” installing an electromagnetic catapult.
Another important question is whether or not the Type 002 will be a nuclear vessel. Nuclear power plants offer a number of advantages for large aircraft carriers: they remove the need to refuel during military operations; free up space for aircraft fuel and weapons ; help ensure stable high speeds; and have large energy reserves. Among surface vessels, the usefulness of nuclear power is most apparent for aircraft carriers; the American fleet, which built a significant number of nuclear cruisers during the Cold War, have now decommissioned the ships. The Project 1144 Orlan-class battlecruisers were unique vessels that could not have been produced anywhere except the late Soviet Union, which at the time was somewhat fixated on creating a means to combat the United States’ carrier strike groups.
Equipping the Type 002 vessels with a nuclear power plant would be a phenomenally difficult task, especially for China, as none of its surface ships currently has such an engine. If the decision is taken to install a nuclear power plant, then it would make the Type 002 programme the most ambitious that the Chinese military has undertaken. They would probably use developments made in nuclear submarine technology, where they have some experience (the PLA Navy launched its first nuclear-powered submarines at the beginning of the 1970s). Nuclear reactors in submarines are relatively low-powered, but several can be installed at once: the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle has two reactors that are similar to those used on nuclear-powered submarines, and the USS Enterprise carrier had eight. The Ulyanovsk was supposed to have four reactors – two power plants from Project 1144 cruisers.
Whatever happens, the Type 002 aircraft carrier will not be put into operation until the 2020s. Meanwhile, the Chinese fleet will consist of two carriers with ramps. We will look further into the prospects for the development of China’s carrier-based aircraft and the tasks that the fleet will face in the second part of this article.
1. This is the long-standing collective name given to a series of ship-building programmes in the pre- and post-war period, the goal of which was to create a powerful ocean fleet. The programmes ended in failure due to the fact that the Soviet authorities had overestimated the capacities of the industry, and because the war broke out. The final blow was the death of Stalin and the subsequent redistribution of money that had been allocated to these programmes to the submarine fleet, the army and the development of nuclear missiles in particular.
2. It is worth noting here that in his autobiography (published 15 years after the fact), Xu Zengping, the Hong Kong businessman who carried out the purchase, said that the Chinese government only compensated him for a part of the sum he paid, and only after a long period of time had passed. He effectively handed the ship to the government as a gift. The deal ruined him.
3. This probably explains why, according to the recollections of those involved in the deal on the Ukrainian side, the Chinese did not purchase the technical documentation for Project 1143.6 that was located at the shipyard. Xu Zengping claims otherwise.
4. According to the Soviet plans, the differences between projects 1143.6 and 1143.5 were intended to be minimal and almost unnoticeable: changes to the layout of the power plant; slightly different positioning of the anti-aircraft launchers; and updated electronics.
5. From 5680 to 4660 crew members.
6. The HMAS Melbourne was a Majestic-class aircraft carrier that was in operation from 1955 to 1982. The ship was laid down in the United Kingdom in 1943 and was launched in February 1945. Construction of the ship was suspended after the Second World War. The Royal Australian Navy purchased the ship in June 1947. Construction work on the Melbourne continued at a slow rate, with a number of modifications introduced to allow the vessel to accommodate jet aircraft.
7. NITKA (Ground Test Aircraft Training Complex) is a military complex built in Crimea in the early 1980s. The complex allowed deck take-off and landing operations to be imitated, both for research and training purposes. Eager to rid itself of its dependence on Ukraine, Russia set about building a similar complex in Yeysk. But Russia annexed Crimea before the complex was put into operation and the problems associated with using the first complex disappeared.
8. For example, the Project 1143.7 carrier can carry more than twice the amount of aircraft fuel than the similarly-sized 1143.5 and 1143.6 vessels.