The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is taking further steps to expand its domestic aircraft carrier production plans, highlighting the rapid growth of Beijing’s blue-water navy ambitions.
PLAN currently operates two aircraft carriers. Type 001 Liaoning was built from the hulk of the Soviet Kuznetsov-class aircraft cruiser Riga, purchased by China from the post-Soviet state of Ukraine in 1998—Liaoning currently serves in PLAN’s North Sea Fleet. Shandong is a domestically-built, conventionally powered carrier that was transferred to the South Sea Fleet in 2019. Shandong, which was introduced as the Type 001A but renamed as the Type 002 after being commissioned, boasts a series of practical design improvements over the Liaoning.
Chinese state media outlet Global Times reported that Shandong recently held its third voyage of 2020. According to Chinese military expert Song Zhongping, Shandong participated in exercises involving the deployment of carrier-based fighters and joint maneuvers with other surface vessels. Global Times notes that Shandong will frequently pass through the Taiwan Strait as it travels between its home port of Sanya in the South China Sea and the northeastern Dalian shipyard for regular maintenance.
Proceeding at breakneck construction speed, China’s shipbuilding industry is close to churning out its next aircraft carrier. The Type 003 will reportedly be launched in the near future and is projected to enter service by 2023. Contrary to widespread expectations, the Type 003 will seemingly not be nuclear-powered. Instead, it will likely boast an integrated electric propulsion (IEP) with electromagnetic (EM) catapults. In the absence of consistent and reliable leaks from industry insiders, what little we know of the Type 003 consists of limited satellite imagery. According to two new images, it appears that the hull length is just slightly upwards of 300 meters—for a sense of scale, the Liaoning is 305 meters and the Shandong is reportedly 315 meters.
China plans to deploy multiple Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs), consisting of its new Type 055 stealth destroyer, Type 052D anti-air destroyer, and several attack submarines in addition to the aircraft carriers themselves. These carriers are expected to house, among others, the new Shenyang FC-31, a fifth-generation carrier-based stealth fighter that can deliver a healthy variety of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles.
Dedicated CSGs augment the already-considerable military threat that China poses to Taiwan, but will also serve a broader power projection purpose in the East and South China Seas where Beijing is locked in military competition with India and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
As opposed to types 001 and 002, there is a distinct possibility of more than one Type 003 being laid down. As of the time of writing, it appears that PLAN is interested in a future aircraft carrier roster that contains a mix of nuclear and conventional models for different missions. It should be stressed that, due to the relative secrecy of China’s defense sector, any preliminary information on China’s upcoming aircraft carriers must be taken with a grain of salt.
The PLAN reportedly seeks to procure six aircraft carriers by 2035, with at least one military source adding that Beijing plans to field a total of ten nuclear and conventionally-powered aircraft carriers by 2049.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest. Image: Reuters