By Christopher Mitchell
The People’s Republic of China launched the type 001A aircraft carrier, Shandong, in 2017. Since then, the Shandong has been undergoing sea trials and will likely be delivered to the Chinese Navy soon. The carrier is based on the Liaoning, formerly the Soviet Varyag. Both Liaoning and Shandong are ski jump carriers. Aircraft launch off an incline at the bow of the ship, this prevents them from carrying a full load of fuel and weapons. It also means that Chinese carriers have been unable to carry airborne early warning and resupply aircraft. While 001A does not solve these problems it does boast a number of improvements over the Liaoning as well as a notable milestone in China’s shipbuilding capabilities.
China’s first domestically produced carrier, while not radically different from the Liaoning, was built to better suit Chinese needs. The Shandong is slightly larger than Liaoning at ten meters longer, displacing up to an extra ten thousand tons. The carrier will likely also boast a slightly larger air wing that could include eight additional helicopters like the Z-9 or four multirole fighter jets like the J-15. Internal layouts are likely more efficient for storing aircraft and weapons. More importantly, this is a crucial milestone in China’s aircraft carrier ambitions. China has now demonstrated its independent ability to produce aircraft carriers and other advanced warships such as air defense destroyers. The Liaoning and Shandong do not rival American nuclear supercarriers in terms of size, aircraft capacity, range, or aircraft handling capability. As Japan seeks its own aircraft carriers and China’s foreign investment portfolio grows, the PRC will continue to build ever more advanced carriers to protect their interests.
China’s Type 002 carrier is already under construction. China’s primary military shipbuilder, CSIC, leaked a concept design of 002 that shows a flat top carrier with similar design features to the new American Ford class carriers, including an electromagnetic aircraft launch system. Such a design would allow the 002 to carry more aircraft, weapons, and launch more advanced assets like early warning aircraft. While all Chinese carriers including 002 have been steam and diesel powered, 003 will likely be nuclear powered giving it plenty of energy to accept weapons such as laser defenses and railguns.  From a strategic standpoint, it would also give Chinese carriers virtually unlimited range allowing China to have a sustained presence in the Indian Ocean. China would then also join the small club of nations with nuclear powered carriers, something only the US and France currently have. China could very likely build the world’s second largest carrier fleet with anywhere between six and eight carriers or more.
China often stays out of international conflicts, but a new carrier gives them greater capability to intervene if they should choose to do so. China has numerous islands in the South China Sea that can host everything from fighter jets such as the J-15 to Xian H-6 bombers. Thus, deploying carriers to the area is simply not a necessity. China will likely use carriers to conduct operations in the East China Sea near Taiwan and Japan, the Indian Ocean near Pakistan and India, and off the coast of Africa, where China has numerous investments. China has also taken a greater role in humanitarian, counter-piracy, and peacekeeping operations around the world that naval air capabilities will provide critical support to. China’s carrier fleet can be a force for global peace or a potential threat. Hopefully, China’s civic and military leaders will remain dedicated to their commitments to peaceful development and international peace. Ultimately, recent developments in the Chinese carrier program demonstrate increasing technical capability and a meaningful step towards great power status.
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