The People’s Liberation Army Navy—more commonly known outside of China as the Chinese Navy—is modernizing at a breakneck pace. Chinese shipbuilders have built more than one hundred warships in the past decade, a build rate outstripping the mighty U.S. Navy. Most importantly, China now has two aircraft carriers—Liaoning and a second ship under sea trials—and a third and possibly fourth ship under construction. With such a massive force under construction it’s worth asking: where does PLA naval aviation go from here?
For most of its modern history China has been the target of aircraft carriers, not an owner of one. The Imperial Japanese Navy’s carriers conducted strikes on the Chinese mainland in support of ground campaigns in the 1930s, strikes that went a long way toward honing the service’s legendary naval aviation record. U.S. naval power protected nationalist Chinese forces at the end of the Chinese Civil War, and U.S. Navy carriers conducted airstrikes on Chinese “volunteers” during the Korean War. In 1996 during the Third Taiwan Crisis, the United States deployed a carrier battle group near Taiwan as a sign of support against Chinese military actions. It could be fairly said that aircraft carriers made a significant impression on China.
Today, China has two aircraft carriers: the ex-Soviet carrier Liaoning, and a second unnamed ship, Type 002, currently undergoing sea trials. Liaoning is expected to function strictly as a training carrier, establishing training, techniques, and procedures for Chinese sailors in one of the most dangerous aspects of naval warfare: naval aviation. Despite this, Liaoning’s three transits of the Taiwan Strait and visit to Hong Kong show the PLAN considers it perfectly capable of showing the flag.
The second ship, Type 002 (previously referred to as Type 001A) resembles Liaoning but with a handful of improvements, including an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar the carrier’s island and a larger flight deck. Experts believe Type 002 will carry slightly more fighters than her older sibling, up to thirty J-15 jets in all. Type 002 will be the first combat-capable carrier, although the lack of a catapult means its aircraft must sacrifice range and striking power in order to take off from the flight deck.
A third ship of yet another class is under construction at the Jiangnan Shipyard at Shanghai, with credible reports of a fourth ship of the same class under construction at Dalian. This new class, designated Type 003, is the first Chinese carrier constructed using a modern, modular construction method. The modules, known as “superlifts” each weigh hundreds of tons, are assembled on land and then hoisted onto the ship in drydock. Large American and British warships, including carriers such as the USS Gerald R. Ford and HMS Queen Elizabeth are assembled using the superlift method.
Although there are few hard details on Type 003, we do know some things. The new carrier will forgo the ski ramp method for CATOBAR, or Catapult-Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery. The use of catapults will allow the carrier to launch heavier aircraft with great fuel and weapons loads, making the carrier more effective as a power projection platform. China has reportedly conducted “thousands” of test launches of a new electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS). Not only does an EMALs launch system enable the launch of heavier combat jets, it can also launch propeller-driven aircraft similar to the U.S. Navy’s E-2D Hawkeye airborne early warning and control aircraft and the C-2 Greyhound cargo transport. The ability to tune EMALs power levels also makes it easier to launch smaller, lighter unmanned aerial vehicles from catapults.
We don’t currently know the size and displacement of the Type 003s, and likely won’t be able to even make an educated guess for another year. They will probably be incrementally larger than Type 002 with an incrementally larger air wing and overall combat capability, though one still falling short of American supercarriers. The new carriers are expected to be conventionally powered and fortunately, China’s EMALS system will not reportedly require nuclear power.
At the same time, Chinese designers are believed to be hard at work on a fourth class of carrier, Type 004. According to Popular Science, a leak by the shipbuilder claims the new class, “will displace between ninety thousand and one hundred thousand tons and have electromagnetically assisted launch system (EMALS) catapults for getting aircrafts off the deck. It'll likely carry a large air wing of J-15 fighters, J-31 stealth fighters, KJ-600 airborne early warning and control aircraft, anti-submarine warfare helicopters, and stealth attack drones.” Such specifications will make them the equal of U.S. carriers, at least on paper.
Meanwhile, the PLAN is looking forward a next-generation carrier aircraft. The PLAN has twenty-four J-15 multirole fighters, with at least two aircraft lost and two damaged during accidents attributed to the J-15 itself. That’s not enough aircraft to equip two carriers, land-based training units and carriers currently under construction. A future aircraft could be a carrier-based version of the Chengdu J-20 or the J-31/FC-31, China’s two new fifth-generation fighters. An interim solution could be the so-called J-17, an improved J-15 roughly comparable to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the EA-18G Growler.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy carrier fleet is a rapidly growing force shaping up to be a powerful, flexible tool of statecraft and war. Beijing could realistically have four aircraft carriers by 2022—a remarkable feat of military construction. All of this lead to a number of unsolved questions. To what end is Beijing building this force? How many carriers will the PLAN ultimately build? Is China growing a carrier force meant to protect its interests or expand them? We simply don’t know—but we will certainly find out.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
This piece was originally featured in September 2018 and is being republished due to reader interest.