Is This China’s Second Aircraft Carrier?
China’s military – especially its navy – is getting more sophisticated by the day. You’re looking at photos from Chinese Web forums showing what appears to be Beijing’s first fully domestically-built aircraft carrier under construction. (An earlier carrier was a retrofit of a Soviet ship.) If these photos are legit, this is just the latest ...
China's military - especially its navy - is getting more sophisticated by the day. You're looking at photos from Chinese Web forums showing what appears to be Beijing's first fully domestically-built aircraft carrier under construction. (An earlier carrier was a retrofit of a Soviet ship.)
China’s military – especially its navy – is getting more sophisticated by the day. You’re looking at photos from Chinese Web forums showing what appears to be Beijing’s first fully domestically-built aircraft carrier under construction. (An earlier carrier was a retrofit of a Soviet ship.)
If these photos are legit, this is just the latest in a string of new, modern weapons — from stealth fighters to stealth drones — that China has surprised the world with in the last three years. But it’s arguably the most important. The U.S. Navy has a commanding lead over every other military on the open seas. If China can close that gap, even just a bit, it could significantly shake up the global power equation. (India, a longtime single aircraft carrier operator, is also preparing to field multiple aircraft carriers in the near future.)
What gives this simple slice of a ship away as a future carrier? First, that big, flat top that’s larger than the rest of the hull — it’s perfect for mounting a flight deck. Then there’s the big open space in the middle of the hull just below that flight deck; that appears to be the makings of the ship’s hangar deck.
In the first picture you can see a cutout section on the right side of the vessel (left in the photo) that might be designed to accommodate an aircraft elevator with access to the hangar deck. Update: This cutout might also be part of the support for the carrier’s “island” superstructure. As you can see in this satellite image, the cutout looks a bit narrow for an aircraft elevator. Instead, it might be something similar to the opening beneath Lioning’s superstructure as shown in a photo here.
Finally, several of the photos below show a v-shaped notch cut into the left side the flat top, this might be the groove for a catapults.
This last detail is significant. China’s current carrier, Liaoning (an unfinished Soviet carrier once known Varyag) has no catapults. Those give a carrier the ability to launch a much more advanced and capable air wing. Not only can catapult-equipped ships carry a wider variety of fighters and strike planes, they can launch large, slow propeller-driven radar planes that can scan large swaths of the sky for enemy aircraft and direct the carrier’s fighters to them.
The Liaoning instead uses a ski-jump like ramp on its bow to get J-15 fighters airborne. It’s pretty much limited to being able to launch J-15s with their very powerful engines. If this new ship has catapults, it could do much, much more.
Killer Apps has previously shown you photos suggesting China is working on developing aircraft carrier catapults. The Chinese government is rumored to be working on both traditional steam catapults (like those used by Western navies for the last 60 years) and a version of the U.S. Navy’s brand new electromagnetic catapults. These electromagnetic catapults can launch a wider variety of aircraft and use less energy than steam cats.
Photos have also emerged showing what looks like a Chinese attempt to build a propeller-driven radar plane resembling the U.S. Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye — among the larger, less glamorous aircraft to fly from a carrier but one of the most important due to its ability to find enemy aircraft.
(It’s worth pointing out that China’s second stealth fighter, the J-31, might be designed to operate from an aircraft carrier.)
China’s second carrier is rumored to be based on the design for Soviet Union’s first, (and never-finished) catapult-equipped carrier, the Ulanovsk. That ship featured two catapults and was considerably larger than the Soviet Admiral Kuznetzov class that Liaoning belongs to.
Ulanovsk was supposed to be the first of the USSR’s fleet of nuclear-powered supercarriers meant to compete with the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz class ships (which were still larger and more capable than Ulanovsk). The fall of the Soviet Union changed all that and the ship was scrapped at a Ukranian shipyard in 1992 when it was about 20 percent complete.
The Ulanovsk’s catapults were to be mounted amidships, immediately across the flight deck from one of the ship’s aircraft elevators — just like the design shown in today’s pictures from China. It looks like that rumor about China’s new ship being based on the unfinished Soviet carrier has been confirmed. (Though this ship could be a modified Kuznetzov class design.)
China has also based its J-15 carrier fighters on Russia’s Su-33 fighter.
China has been buying up old Australian and Russian carriers since the 1980s. Ostensibly, China purchased the ships to either scrap them or turn them into museums and even a posh hotel. What Beijing didn’t advertise loudly is that Chinese engineers poured over those ships to learn as much as possible about their construction and design.
When China bought the empty hulk of the Varyag (a considerably more advanced design than the older ships it purchased, some of which dated to World War II) from a Ukrainian shipyard in 1998 it said it was going to turn the ship into a casino in Macau. Fifteen years later, the ex Varyag is equipped with modern weapons and serving in the PLAN as Liaoning.
So there you have it, China continues its breakneck military modernization effort and will likely have at least two aircraft carriers floating by the end of this decade.
(One last thing. Notice that “Free Ryukyu” stamp in the lower left side of one the photos? That might be some Chinese patriots using the carrier pics to hint at using China’s military muscle to back Okinawa’s independence movement.)
John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.
More from Foreign Policy
At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment
Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.
How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China
As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.
What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal
Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.
Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust
Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.