Chinese Aircraft Carrier Programme By Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi, AVSM, VSM (Retd)

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Introduction
As of 2024, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has two active carriers, the Liaoning and Shandong, with the third, Fujian currently undergoing sea trials. A fourth carrier, currently called “Type 004” and featuring nuclear propulsion, might be under construction. China is planning to possess five or six aircraft carriers by the 2030s.

Background
Global Aircraft Carriers
During World War I the British navy developed the first true aircraft carrier with an unobstructed flight deck, the HMS Argus, which was built on a converted merchant-ship hull. A Japanese carrier, the Hosyo, which entered service in December 1922, was the first carrier designed as such from the keel up.

The first aircraft carrier commissioned into the United States Navy (USN) was the USS Langley (CV-1) on 20 March 1922. By World War II, they had close to 35 carriers. During the Cold War, supercarriers were built. Enterprise (CVN-65) was the first nuclear-powered carrier, and John F. Kennedy (CV-67) was the last conventionally powered carrier.
These were then followed by the Nimitz class and the modern-day post-Cold War Gerald R. Ford-class nuclear supercarriers, the only two classes of supercarriers currently in active duty service. Today, they have 11 supercarriers.

Three are under fitting or construction, and one more has just been ordered. Typically, a supercarrier is nuclear powered, and the USS Gerald R. Ford, the world’s largest aircraft carrier, has over 100,000 tons displacement, 25 decks, and could carry around 80 aircraft.
The total US combined deck space is over twice that of all other nations combined. The USN also has nine amphibious assault ships, which are used primarily for helicopters. These ships each carry up to 20 vertical or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) fighter jets and are similar in size to medium-sized fleet carriers.

As of March 2024, there are 47 active aircraft carriers in the world operated by fourteen navies. India, the United Kingdom, and China each operate two aircraft carriers. France and Russia each operate a single aircraft carrier with a capacity of 30 to 60 fighters. Italy operates two light V/STOL carriers, and Spain operates one V/STOL aircraft-carrying assault ship.
Helicopter carriers are operated by Japan (4, two of which are being converted to operate V/STOL fighters), France (3), Australia (2), Egypt (2), South Korea (2), China (3), Thailand (1) and Brazil (1). Future aircraft carriers are under construction or in planning by China, France, India, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, and the US.

Growth of PLAN-
• PLAN had ambitions to develop and operate Aircraft Carriers since the 1970s. In the years after 1985 China acquired four retired aircraft carriers for study, namely, the British-built Australian HMAS Melbourne and the ex-Soviet carriers Minsk, Kiev and Varyag. The Varyag later underwent an extensive refit, to be converted into the Aircraft Carrier ‘Liaoning’, China’s first operational aircraft carrier, which also served as a basis for China’s subsequent design iterations for the future Aircraft Carriers.
• In May 1987, the Central Military Commission (CMC), approved the Programme of training of the jet fighter pilots to be commanders of the Aircraft Carriers, which would be joining the PLAN. The Guangzhou Naval Academy was selected as the site for the training.
• To study and thereafter develop indigenous capabilities, China acquired HMAS Melbourne from Australia, in February 1985 which was planned for scrapping by the Royal Australian Navy. However, Chinese retained it for further study. PLAN approached Royal Australian Navy for the Blueprint of some of the critical components like steam catapult and landing gear which was declined. Chinese engineers reverse-engineered to build some of these critical components including Steam catapult and landing gear. China further acquired the former Soviet Kiev Class Aircraft Carriers, Minsk in 1995 and Kiev in 2000. Both the ships were converted into tourist attractions, with Minsk turned into a theme park and Kiev a luxury hotel.
• The 67,500 ton ex-Soviet Aircraft Carrier Varyag (Kuznetsov Class), which was only 68% complete and was floating in Ukraine was purchased in 1998. The carrier underwent a long refit. In September 2012, it was announced that this carrier would be named Liaoning. Four years later, in November 2016, it was reported that Liaoning was combat ready.
• Second Aircraft Carrier – The Type 002, or Shandong, is China’s first domestically produced aircraft carrier. Construction began in November 2013 at the Dalian Shipyard and the ship was launched on 26 April 2017. After being fitted out, China’s first domestically produced aircraft carrier underwent nine sea trials over the course of 18 months, starting from May 2018. The ship having a displacement of 60-70000 tons, full load was formally commissioned into service on 19 December 2019.
• Type 003 Aircraft Carrier- The third aircraft carrier, known as Fujian, is an entirely different design than Liaoning and Shandong. It is the largest of China’s current fleet. It has a displacement of over 80,000 tons and is slightly smaller in size than the US Navy’s Ford Class Aircraft Carrier. It was reported in early 2021 that the first ship of this class would be launched in the same year, with construction already started on a second ship in this class. On 10 November 2021, Bloomberg reported that “China is three to six months away from launching its third aircraft carrier”, citing a report by the ‘Centre for Strategic and International Studies’. On June 17, 2022, the Type 003, now named Fujian was officially completed and launched. In January 2024, the Fujian was carrying out mooring tests in preparation for its maiden voyage. On 1 May 2024, the Fujian officially commenced its first sea trials.
• The Type 004 is planned to be larger than the Type 003, and also feature nuclear propulsion, which could power weapons like LASERS and Railguns. It is claimed that construction started in December 2017 at Jiangnan Shipyard.

Development of Aircraft Carrier-based aircrafts-
• China initially, in the 2000s, intended to acquire Russian Sukhoi Su-33 Carrier based aircraft to be operated from its aircraft carriers. However, China later, starting in 2006, developed the Shenyang J-15 as a derivative of the Su-33, featuring Chinese technology and avionics from the J-11B Programme. On 25 November 2012, it was announced that at least two Shenyang J-15s had successfully landed on Liaoning. The pilot credited with having achieved the first landing was Dai Ming Meng. However, according to some Chinese media reports, the J-15 couldnot take off from Liaoning with a full fuel and munition load, being unable to get off the carrier’s ski jump-ramp if the payload exceeded 12 tons. In a follow-up review by Rick Joe of the Diplomat in 2021, it was argued that the source of this Chinese media was unreliable and he proved that the J-15 indeed was able to take off with Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTOW) when the speed of the carrier was taken into calculation.
• The Shenyang FC-31 also possibly called J-35 in military use is an in-development medium-sized FGSF that may in future be adopted for carrier use. The South China Morning Post reported on 6 July 2018 that China is developing an upgraded variant of the FC-31 as an alternate carrier operational jet. The FC-31 may enter its production phase, and military service, in 2026.
• The Xian KJ-600 is an in-development High straight wing Airborne early warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft suspected to be fitted with an Actively Electronically Scanned Array (AESA)-type Radome (Radar and Dome) system, and current non-flying mock-up model has a striking external resemblance to the aft ward folding Northrop Grumman E2 Hawkeye, a carrier-based AEW&C aircraft serving the US Navy. Analysts H. I. Sutton believed the KJ-600 will be a massive boost to the Chinese Navy, and “once it enters service on the carriers, it will greatly enhance the aerial and maritime situational awareness, and the offensive and defensive capabilities of the carrier group”.
Operational Philosophy of PLAN- On 30 July 2011, a senior researcher of the academy of Military Sciences said that China needed at least three aircraft carriers. “If we consider our neighbors, India will have three aircraft carriers by 2014 and Japan will have three carriers by 2014, so I think the number (for China) should not be less than three”. On 24 April 2013, Chinese Rear Admiral Song Xue confirmed that China will build more carriers, and these will be larger and will carry more fighter-planes than Liaoning. China had confirmed that it would be constructing a second Aircraft Carrier that will be built entirely with indigenous Chinese designs. Like Liaoning, China’s second carrier would also use a ski jump for takeoff. Report initially claimed that up to two carriers based on the lines of Varyag would be started by 2015. Review reported that the second carrier to be constructed would likely to be assigned to Qingdao on Yellow Sea.
PLAN’s Blue Water Aspiration-
• Since the 1970s, the PLAN has expressed interest in operating an aircraft carrier as part of its blue water aspirations.
• The Pentagon’s 2023 China Military Power report said that PLAN had about 370 warships. The fleet is expected to grow to 395 ships by 2025 and 435 ships by 2030. In fact the current U.S. fleet is smaller, with around 280 vessels, though, it is a separate issue that in terms of platform size and tonnage, USN is still way ahead. As part of its future strategy, it has been reported that China will develop capability to employ PLAN to control the near seas and project power in the far seas.
• China’s strategic transformation to a dominant global naval power is based on Admiral Mahan’s concept of Sea power as a controlling factor of the geopolitics.
• The immediate targets of the PLAN are defending China’s sea lines of communication (SLOCs) to the Persian Gulf, countering maritime security threats such as piracy, and building a force to assert China’s overall status and image as a major world power.
• Nuclear aircraft carriers and submarines (both SSN and SSBN) are important parts of the force build-up. Uninhabited surface and underwater platforms are also a focus area.
• China already nearly dominates the South China Sea and area up to 1st Island Chain. They are making forays in the East China Sea and the 2nd Island chain and want to ultimately dominate the Western Pacific Ocean and northern Indian Ocean. They are trying to arrange or acquire more naval staging bases in the two regions. But Belt and Road has not given it much mileage.
• Currently, China cannot match the U.S. and its ally’s economic muscle and combined naval power in the region. US Combatant Commands cover the entire globe. China’s Theatre Commands are still land-based. China’s economic growth is also slowing down. There are demographic issues. PLAN has low exercise exposure. Also, there are many technological hurdles to cross, including EMALS, nuclear propulsion, carrier aircraft design, and production numbers.
Implications for India
Interestingly, India had thought much ahead and acquired the British HMS Hercules in 1957. It had completed refurbishment and operationalized it as INS Vikrant by 1961, albeit ,it was a small carrier (16,000 tons). Yet it played a significant operational role in the 1971 Indo-Pak war.
Although, both India and China are still at the two-aircraft carrier stage, but China is fast pushing ahead in numbers, tonnage, and technology- Operationalisation of Fujian and planning for Type 004 are step in this direction. Latest addition to Indian Navy is INS Vikrant, which has only 45000 ton displacement much lower than Shandong what to talk of Fujian. Defence Acquisition Council has yet to give approval for the Third Aircraft Carrier, which probably will be a repeat order for a second Vikrant class Aircraft STOBAR Carrier with certain advancements, as confirmed by previous Naval Chief in Nov 2023. Its requirement has been vetted by Defence Procurement Board in Dec 2023 and the approval is awaited by the DAC. There is a need to go for the approval of IAC-3, INS Vishal of 65000 tons displacement. Here it needs to be appreciated that it took 23 years for INS Vikrant to get operationalised from the time it was conceived (1999-2022). This timeline flags the need for a expeditious decision with respect to Indian Aircraft Carrier-2 (IAC-2). Here again it needs to be taken into account that though, Electro Magnetic Aircraft launch System (EMALS) is planned for next IAC, but the supply by the US, or development of the same, has still to be coordinated.
As against existing and planned growth of PLAN, Indian Navy has only 150 ships. India still depends on carrier based aircrafts on imports. the timeline anticipation for the indigenous Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter’s (TEDBF’s) first rollout is within four years, with the jet entering service by 2034. Although the original goal aimed for a first flight by 2026, it appears likely to be revised to late 2029 or the early 2030s. The need for expedited growth of Indian Navy both in terms of technology and number of ships is critical to maintain dominance in the IOR.
Chinese submarines have been in the Indian Ocean, but aircraft carriers are still hanging around in the South China Sea general area. However, it needs to be noted that with PLAN having logistic bases in Djibouti, Hambantota, and Gwadar, it is only a matter of time that PLAN will venture into Indian Ocean. By one assessment, a PLAN aircraft carrier is expected to sail into the Indian Ocean by 2025-26, when “Fujian” would be fully operational. Here it needs to be appreciated that the Indian Navy, so far, covers the Northern Indian Ocean fairly well, but is smaller in size and also has much fewer submarines. All such assessments call for a greater attention to the growth of the maritime assets of India.
Indian Navy’s urgent requirements for conventional and nuclear submarines are also competing for funds. INS Vikramaditya has been in service since 2014. The original platform is of 1980s Soviet vintage. This will be due for replacement by 2030 or so.
Ideally, India needs at least three aircraft carriers, but certainly not less than two. Notwithstanding the never-ending debate on shore-based airpower vs. aircraft carriers and the argument that aircraft carriers require a huge flotilla to defend themselves, there is an urgency to begin construction of the next Indian aircraft carrier.

Author – Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi, AVSM, VSM (Retd)  is a retired Indian Army General Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, NE, Andman Nikobar on various appointments at Command and Army HQs. . He is Sr Vice Chairman of Think Tank, “STRIVE”,  after retirement is pursuing his favorite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals, and think tanks.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the STRIVE.

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