On 26 April, China’s first indigenously-built Type 001A aircraft carrier was launched in northeast China’s Dalian Shipyard, a major milestone in the PLA Navy’s two-decade aircraft carrier programme.
The new carrier, which has yet been officially named, is largely based on its predecessor, the Soviet-built Varyag, now serving with the PLA Navy as the Liaoning (CV-16). The vessel will provide the PLA Navy with its second fully operational aircraft carrier, with some increased capability. It will carry more aircraft onboard, and will be fitted with upgraded radar and sensors. More importantly, the launch of the new carrier proves that China has finally gained the capability to design and build a modern aircraft carrier independently.
Construction of the Type 001A carrier began in November 2013, shortly after the commission of the Liaoning. Hull assembly inside a dry dock began in March 2015. In December 2015, a Ministry of National Defence (MND) spokesperson confirmed that existence of the indigenous aircraft carrier programme, confirming that the design and construction work was underway. The launch ceremony on 26 April 2017 was attended by General Fan Changlong, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and the highest uniformed leader of the PLA.
Like the Varyag/Liaoning (Type 001), the Type 001A carrier also features a short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) arrangement. Aircraft take-off is assisted by a bow ski-jump angled at 14°. The flight desk is fitted with arresting wires. Two starboard lifts carry the aircraft from the hangar to the flight deck. The carrier operates the Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark carrier-based multirole fighter (including its two-seater variant J-15S), and the Changhe Z-18 helicopter and Harbin Z-9 helicopter for the transport, AEW, ASW and SAR roles.
The Type 001A allows an opportunity for the Chinese shipbuilder to fine tune the design of the Varyag, including a larger hangar to allow more aircraft to be carried, upgraded radar and sensors, higher level of automation, improved crew living conditions, and increased capacity for fuel and other consumables.
The PLA has been seeking to develop a ‘blue water’ navy, capable of operating in high seas beyond China’s offshore waters. However, this ambition has been severely limited by the Chinese shipbuilding industry’s inability to construct a modern aircraft carrier. There have been numerous rumours about possible deals to purchase foreign-built aircraft carriers or an indigenous building programme, but most of these turned out to be false. Instead, China took a more cautious approach, beginning with purchase and research of retired foreign carriers including the former Australian carrier HMAS Melbourne (1985), and former Soviet carriers Minsk (1998) and Kiev (2000). In 2002, China received the incomplete ex-Soviet Navy Project 1143.5 aircraft carrier Varyag from Ukraine. Following an extensive restoration and refit programme, the vessel was finally commissioned in 2012 as the country’s first aircraft carrier.
The Type 001A carrier is expected to gain full operational capability by 2020. However, the PLA Navy’s carrier ambition does not stop here. Already there have been reports suggesting that a third, lager aircraft carrier featuring catapult-assisted take-off has begun construction at the Shanghai-based Jiangnan Shipyard.