The Buzz

Asia Get Ready: Is This China’s Vision of Future Aircraft Carrier Designs?

A high-caliber model manufacturer may just have provided a unique glimpse into the Chinese vision of aircraft carriers to come.

To stimulate discussion in China-watching circles, it is useful to assess the commercial enterprise’s three new indigenous carrier models (more pictures are available on my personal homepage here) critically and consider their possible significance before watching for other indicators of how things will ultimately unfold in reality. At very least, this offers a great solution for last-minute holiday gift shopping.

The dimensions and specifications of China’s first aircraft carrier CV16 (Liaoning) are well-known. Based on the Russian Project 11436 hull Varyag, it was long visible under refitting in Dalian Naval Shipyard before finally going to sea in 2011.

Now Jinshuai Model Crafts, based in Zhanjiang City, Jiashan District, is displaying models of putative hulls 17, 18, and 19 on its website and catalogs. These models provide clues to a vital question: what direction will China’s domestic aircraft carrier design and production take? In short, the models suggest: China will progress as quickly as possible to a large nuclear-powered design, similar to a Nimitz- or Ford-class hull with Chinese characteristics, and let deck aviation capabilities grow into the gargantuan new platform as they become able to do so.

Why take the time to analyze these depictions seriously? First, while other models have appeared, to this author’s knowledge this is the first representation of hulls 17-19. The idea of a trio is particularly interesting, because various Chinese sources have described CV16 as merely a training carrier, while stating that China needs at least three fully-functional aircraft carriers. According to People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Military Science Research Fellow Du Wenlong, this is so that “one is always available for operational missions, while the second is used for training and the third is resupplied and retrofitted.” Second, Jinshuai Model Crafts purports to be a cut above the rest. Located near the South Sea Fleet Headquarters in Zhanjiang, it produces a wide range of meticulously detailed models of PLA Navy (PLAN) vessels. The company claims to have produced models given as official gifts by PLA attachés, for fleet visits, and in conjunction with naval diplomacy in the Gulf of Aden—something that would seem to require a track record of at least somewhat passable plausibility. Finally, this company would seem to have an economic incentive to maximize sales by offering the most accurate and forward-looking items possible. It likely has access to contacts and information to help ensure that its representations of platforms are as realistic as possible, particularly in their broader parameters. Where the model builder may be “winging it” a bit with these aircraft carrier models concerns associated weapons systems, sensors, and aircraft. Here, their description is less than official and appears to be influenced by Internet speculation.

Explicit caveat up front: Unless otherwise stated, specifications for weapons and sensors listed below are not from the models themselves, but from nameplates accompanying models of CV17 and CV18. Nameplate data regarding overall carrier dimensions and performance parameters are plausible, but nameplate data regarding weapons and sensors are often inconsistent with what is depicted on the model. These nameplate data are nevertheless included here to offer grist for further discussion and analysis. That is the larger purpose of this writing: not to offer conclusions that go beyond the limited and sometimes contradictory paraphernalia marketed by Jinshuai Model Crafts thus far, but rather to stimulate deeper examination of China’s ongoing development of a highly complex, symbolic system of systems for the seas and air above them.

Like Liaoning, CV17 also has a ski jump. The nameplate accompanying the model cites a length of 315 m, width of 75 m, draft of 9 m, and cruising speed of 31 knots. CV17 is credited with a standard displacement of 65,000 tons and a full displacement of 80,000 tons. These figures seem plausible.

Rather than representing a mere Chinese copy of the Project 11437 Ul’yanovsk-class-derived carrier, however, CV17’s smokestack shape and exhaust stack arrangement suggests a transition to all gas turbines, or even a diesel/gas turbine combination, instead of nuclear reactors and steam turbines. In another sign of intended design improvements, the model boasts a hydrodynamic projected bulbous bow.

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