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April 23: The Day China Launches Its New Aircraft Carrier?

China’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier could be set to launch on April 23—the 68th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

The Type 001A carrier—thought to be named Shandong—is currently being outfitted at the Dalian shipyards in northeastern China. The vessel is a modified version of China’s first carrier—Liaoning—that was built from the decaying hulk of the Soviet Kuznetsov-class flattop Varyag.

“China’s first home-built aircraft carrier is now being fitted out, everything is going very smoothly,” defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian told the South China Morning Post. “Regarding the news [about whether the ship will be launched in time for the navy’s anniversary] I believe you won’t have to wait too long.”

While the ship is being launched this month, it will take sometime to complete outfitting the vessel. The new Type 001A will likely head to sea-trials in 2019 and could become operational by 2020. Unlike Liaoning, which has primarily been used for operational testing and training, the new vessel will primarily be geared towards operational use.

“Given the similarities in design, this will give them an opportunity to increase carrier presence in the region, but more importantly, now they can begin experimenting with how carriers can operate together and build towards a potential 24 hour operations capability as they add additional carriers in the future,” Jerry Hendrix, director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security told The National Interest. “It is also an indication that their industrial base has learned some key lessons from studying and reverse engineering their first carrier, which was kind of a used car they got for a bargain price. Now they can build their own.”

While the Type 001A is a modified version of the Kuznetsov design, it will feature a host of improvements compared to its forbears. According to Li Jie—a Chinese naval expert consulted by the South China Morning Post—the new vessel omits certain ship weapons systems to free up more deck space for the embarked aircraft. Additionally, the carrier’s hangar has been modified to house six to eight additional Shenyang J-15 Flanker fighters. The Type 001A is also thought to be able to carry additional helicopters compared to her Soviet-built predecessor.

China is also fitting the Type 001A with more advanced point defense weapons. The ship will feature China’s best naval S-band radar and four HQ-10 batteries with 24 tubes each. It is not clear if the ship will retain the Soviet-era design’s formidable array of heavy long-range anti-ship cruise missiles.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar. This story has been updated.

Image Credit: Creative Commons.