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Chinese aircraft carrier programme

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Chinese aircraft carrier programme

Since the 1970s, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has expressed interest in operating an aircraft carrier as part of its blue water aspirations. In 2011, People's Liberation Army Chief of the General Staff Chen Bingde confirmed that China was constructing at least one aircraft carrier. In September 2012, China's first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, was commissioned. Four years later, in November 2016, it was reported that Liaoning is now combat ready. China has confirmed that it is constructing a second carrier that will be built entirely with indigenous Chinese designs. Similar to Liaoning, China's second carrier will also use a ski jump for takeoff.


Since 1985, China has acquired four retired aircraft carriers for study, the Australian HMAS Melbourne and the ex-Soviet carriers Minsk, Kiev and Varyag. Reports stated that up to two 60,000-ton Type 001A aircraft carriers based on Varyag were due to be started by 2015. Sukhoi Su-33s were the aircraft that seemed most likely to be flown from these carriers. However, it seems that China's own multirole fighter, the Shenyang J-15, would instead be the candidate planes flown from them. (J-15 is based on the Su-33s).

Acquisition of retired aircraft carriers

Chinese shipyards have gained some exposure to carrier design with the acquisition of retired hulls such as the Australian HMAS Melbourne acquired in 1985. The carrier was not dismantled for many years and according to some reports she was not completely broken up until 2002.

Through various ventures, China has also purchased the ex-Soviet carriers Minsk and Kiev. These carriers have become floating amusement parks for tourists.

There had been other plans to purchase foreign second-hand carriers in the past. For example, a possible deal between China and France for the sale of the Clemenceau fell through in 1997.

ex-HMAS Melbourne

Chinese reverse-engineered a land-based replica of the steam catapult and landing system from that of HMAS Melbourne, and a J-8IIG was used to conduct take-off and landing trials on the land-based flight deck in April 1987, which was not finally confirmed officially until 27 years later in April 2014 by CCTV-13. Both the take-off and landing were conducted on the same day, and the test pilot was PLANAF pilot Li Guoqiang (李国强). The experience gained was applied to the Shenyang J-15.


Several days after ex-Varyag went on its first-sea-trial in August 2011, ex-Kiev welcomed guests in its new role as a luxury hotel with a £9.6 million ($15.6 million) refit. The owners believe that China's naval ambitions as well as a general curiosity about aircraft carriers will result in public interest.


The 67,500 ton ex-Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag (Kuznetsov class), which was only 70% completed and floating in Ukraine, was purchased through a private Macau tourist venture in 1998. Following her troublesome tow to Dalian shipyard, the carrier underwent a long refit. Varyag had been stripped of any military equipment as well as her propulsion systems prior to being put up for sale. In 2007 there were news reports that she was being fitted out to enter service.

On 10 August 2011, it was announced that the refurbishment of Varyag was complete, and that it was undergoing sea trials.

On 14 December 2011, DigitalGlobe, an American Satellite imaging company, announced that while scouring through pictures taken December 8, they had discovered the retrofitted Varyag undergoing trials, DigitalGlobe further stated that their images captured the ship in the Yellow Sea where it operated for 5 days.

In September 2012, it was announced that this carrier would be named Liaoning, after Liaoning Province of China. On 23 September 2012, Liaoning was handed over to the People's Liberation Army Navy, but is not yet in active service.

In November 2012, the first landing was successfully conducted on Liaoning with Shenyang J-15.

Acquisition of designs

In addition to the acquisition of retired aircraft carriers of foreign navies, the PLAN has been actively purchasing foreign aircraft carrier designs as well. One such example was its effort to purchase the blueprints for proposed conventional take off/landing ships from Empresa Nacional Bazan of Spain; the 23,000 ton SAC-200 and the 25,000 ton SAC-220 designs. Negotiations started between 1995 – 1996 but did not result in any purchase. However, the Spanish firm was paid several million US dollars in consulting fees, indicating the probable transfer of some design concepts.

After the Spanish firm had submitted its findings, Russian warship designer Nevskoye Design Bureau completed an aircraft carrier design for China in the late 1990s to meet the Chinese requirement but neither Russia nor China disclosed the price. Neither did the two countries reveal any information on whether China was satisfied with the design or not. In any case, no aircraft carriers based on the design were built, as limited Chinese industrial capabilities in the late-1990s made it impractical for China to start any construction of aircraft carriers.

A complete set of blueprints of a foreign aircraft carrier design was obtained by China when it purchased the decommissioned Soviet aircraft carrier Kiev. Russia insisted on China buying the blueprints as well for a higher price, but neither country has revealed the exact dollar value. However, based on the official information released by the Chinese government on aircraft carriers, all of which dictates conventional design, the V/STOL design does not appear to fit the Chinese requirement.

The complete set of blueprints of a foreign aircraft carrier design obtained by China when it purchased the incomplete Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag is the most recent purchase. Ukraine urged China to increase the original $18 million bid to include additional purchase of the complete set of blueprints of the design, and after negotiations, China agreed to pay another $2 million to purchase the complete set of blueprints. According to the memoir of Chinese embassy staff members who participated in the process, the blueprints reached China before the ship. This conventional design offers more capability.

Early plans

The first official plan of PLAN aircraft carrier development dated back on March 31, 1987 when the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense approved the plan on the aircraft carrier and the next generation nuclear submarine for PLAN submitted by the then commander-in-chief of PLAN, Liu Huaqing. The original plan was to be progressed in stages, with basic research to be completed by the end of the 7th 5-year plan, and development of the platform and aircraft to be completed by the end of the 8th 5-year plan. By 2000, construction was to begin when ordered.

To prepare the commanders needed for the future aircraft carriers, the Central Military Commission approved the program of training jet fighter pilots to be future captains in May 1987, and the Guangzhou Naval Academy (Chinese: 广州舰艇学院; pinyin: Guǎngzhōu jiàntǐng xuéyuàn) was selected as the site.

However, Liu Huaqing’s plan proved to be too ambitious as the domestic Chinese industry at the time could not meet the goal demanded by the plan. As a result, the plan was drastically scaled back to basic research level and the date for an aircraft carrier entering PLAN service was postponed and eventually put on hold. In the meantime, pilot candidates for warship captain training was also altered, with candidates switched to ship-borne helicopter pilots, because it was considered that naval helicopter pilots with much more ship-borne aviation experience would be better prepared than the land-based jet fighter pilots who lack ship-borne aviation experience.

Current status

In mid-2007, Chinese domestic sources revealed that China had purchased a total of four sets of aircraft carrier landing systems from Russia and this was confirmed by Russian manufacturers. However, experts disagreed on the usage of these systems: while some have claimed that it is a clear evidence of the construction of an aircraft carrier, others claim these systems are used to train pilots for a future ship. In August, 2008, Mr. Huang Qiang (黄强), the speaker of the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense announced to the public at a news conference that China had mastered all of the technologies for an aircraft carrier, and would build aircraft carriers in the future when the time was deemed right.

There are media reports of a possibility of China building nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, however the U.S. Department of Defense 2011 Chinese military assessment makes no mention of possible nuclear-powered aircraft carrier development. According to the Nippon News Network (NNN), research and development on the planned carriers is being carried out at a military research facility in Wuhan. NNN states that the actual carriers will be constructed at Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. Kanwa Intelligence Review reports that the second carrier to be constructed will likely be assigned to Qingdao.

According to a February 2011 report in the The Daily Telegraph, the Chinese military has constructed a concrete aircraft carrier flight deck to use for training carrier pilots and carrier operations personnel. The deck was constructed on top of a government building near Wuhan (Wuhan Technical College of Communication campus next to Huangjiahu).

On 7 June 2011, People's Liberation Army Chief of the General Staff Chen Bingde confirmed that China was constructing its own aircraft carrier. He stated he would provide no further details until it was complete.

On 30 July 2011, a senior researcher of the Academy of Military Sciences said China needed at least three aircraft carriers. "If we consider our neighbours, 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 so we can defend our rights and our maritime interests effectively." General Luo Yuan. In July 2011, a Chinese official announced that two aircraft carriers were being built at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. On 21 May 2012, Taiwan's intelligence chief Tsai Teh-sheng told the Legislative Yuan that the PLA Navy plans to build two carriers, scheduled to start construction in 2013 and 2015 and launch in 2020 and 2022 respectively. 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.

Type 001A

In December 2013, China's Central Military Commission told Duowei News it planned to commission two Liaoning-pattern aircraft carriers by 2020, designated as Type 001A. Contracts have been awarded to China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation to build the two carriers. The cost is projected to be US$9 billion. A waist catapult could be fitted to one or both vessels to facilitate airborne early warning aircraft operation and air control. Presently Liaoning combines unassisted ski-jump launched aircraft with helicopters for anti-submarine and air defense operations..

The 001A is a conventionally powered ski jump carrier with a displacement of around 50,000 tonnes. It is likely to be powered by oil-fired boilers and steam turbines, though previously there has been speculation that it could be gas-turbine propelled. There are some evident differences from the Soviet built Liaoning.

Type 002

The second China-designed aircraft carrier, known as Type 002, is to be an entirely different design than Types 001 (Liaoning) and 001A, one naval expert calling it similar to a "US aircraft carrier rather than a Russian one". Its construction was reported as started in February 2017.

EMALS and steam powered catapults are believed to have been constructed at the Huangdicun naval base for testing ; this is thought to indicate that the 002 class carriers could possibly be CATOBAR carriers

Development of carrier-based aircraft

China has also developed a carrier-based fighter aircraft, the Shenyang J-15. On 25 November 2012, it was announced that at least two Shenyang J-15's had successfully landed on Liaoning. The pilot credited with having achieved the first landing was Dai Mingmeng (戴明盟). According to Chinese media reports, the J-15 cannot take off Liaoning with a full weapons and fuel load exceeding 12 tons, being unable to get off the carrier’s ski jump ramp. The Shenyang J-31 is a fifth generation fighter aircraft being developed by China that may in future be adopted for carrier use.

There are unconfirmed reports of a J-15A catapult compatible fighter being tested on an Electromagnetic (EMALS type) catapult. This is thought to likely have occurred at the Huangdicun facility.


Chinese aircraft carrier programme Wikipedia