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China Enters the Aircraft Carrier Club

China’s growing blue-water naval strength soon may be augmented by the country’s first aircraft carrier. A series of seemingly unconnected steps over the past two decades have positioned the People’s Republic to begin construction and incorporation of a modern carrier into its fleet.
By James C. Bussert, SIGNAL Magazine


The 67,000-ton aircraft carrier Varyag, purchased by China after the collapse of the Soviet Union, may serve as a carrier training platform until China commissions its new indigenous carriers, which may take place around 2014.

Far from being amusement park oddities, the country’s new carriers will be highly capable indigenous ships.

China’s growing blue-water naval strength soon may be augmented by the country’s first aircraft carrier. A series of seemingly unconnected steps over the past two decades have positioned the People’s Republic to begin construction and incorporation of a modern carrier into its fleet.

For decades, China’s position has been that aircraft carriers were tools of evil superpowers and China would never build one. Announcements of the Chinese desire for People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) carriers in 2006 actually came from PLAN captains of the Luda-class DDG-108 destroyers and the Jianghu-III-class FFG-537 frigates rather than from senior aviation officers. One possible reason for this anomaly could be that in 1990 the first nine naval air pilots graduated from the GuangzhangNavalAcademy “Captain Pilot Warship” class and now are commanding destroyers until the carrier is launched.

Dalian NavalAcademy began a 50-man class for carrier pilot training in 2009. An “Aircraft Carrier Office” was established in 2004 under the name of Program 048 for the carrier. China’s 2006 defense white paper noted a reorganization of China’s naval air administration: “The navy has cut the naval aviation department and converted naval air bases into support ones. Following these adjustments, the combat troops … are now directly under the fleets.” In December 2008, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie said, “Among the big nations, only China does not have an aircraft carrier. China cannot be without an aircraft carrier forever.” Early in March 2009, Adm. Hu Yanlin, PLAN, stated, “Building aircraft carriers is a symbol of an important nation. It is very necessary.”

A study for a carrier program began in 1992, aiming at a planned launch by 2000. In 1993, China stated that starting construction on two 48,000-ton carriers would allow them to be completed by 2005. In 1995, Beijing said two 40,000-ton carriers would begin construction in 1996. In 1998, rival India claimed two Chinese carriers were being constructed in Dalian under the code name of “Project 9935.” In 2004, Internet photographs showed a “carrier” under construction in Shanghai. A 2006 Beijing news release stated that a 78,000-ton carrier was to be built at Jiangnan. The latest indication was a Taiwan news release in December 2009 stating that China had begun carrier construction.

India’s and China’s carrier programs have several parallels, such as the use of Russian technology. India has a one- or two-year head start on China. Nearly all of the carrier predictions feature a ski-jump design because of the complexity of airplane elevators and steam catapult technology; although one report states that China already has obtained those, and an 80,000-ton Essex-size carrier is predicted, as unlikely as this seems.

China began selecting needed unique aircraft carrier component vendors in 2006. The initial Chinese carriers likely will feature a ski-jump flight deck rather than a steam catapult. The first carrier will be constructed in the Shanghai Changxing complex and is expected to have the keel laid by the end of 2010. A second hull should follow within a year.

About 50 carrier-qualified pilots and aircraft will be available for the first carriers. After the Soviet Union collapsed, China bought the 67,000-ton Varyag, a new construction carrier. The Varyag, which was 70 percent complete when China purchased it, logically will serve as a carrier training platform until the new indigenous PLAN carriers are commissioned around 2014.

The new Chinese carriers will not be called “aircraft carriers,” which is a terminology approach similar to Russia calling its first carrier an “antisubmarine cruiser” and India calling its carrier a navy “air defense ship.” Terms such as “special heavy vessel” have been used in many prior Chinese government announcements.

Any Chinese carrier must have top-line area air defense radar and missiles. Two such prototypes currently are in service. One is the Aegis phased array radar and three layers of air defense, such as on the 052C Luyang II. These layers include the long-range HQ-9 vertical launch system (VLS) surface-to-air missile (SAM), the medium-range HQ-16 SAM and the short-range close-in weapon system (CIWS). Another option is the 30N6E phased array radar with the Rif-1 S-300 SAM that is on the 051C. Both of these modern radar and SAM systems are imported from Russia.

China has considered several aircraft for its carrier. The J-10 and J-10A have been used for much of the testing of unique carrier equipment, but the Su-33 is more modern and specifically designed with carrier operation equipment, such as tail hooks, for Russian carriers. PLAN J-11 fighters have indigenous 1474 fire control and WS-10 jet engines, which are inadequate for carrier operations. China has been negotiating with Russia for two years to procure 50 Su-33 naval fighters. Aircraft must be ruggedized and strengthened to handle the shock of the tail hook catching and stopping the jet while in approach landing. China bought four sets of Russian complete tail hook kits in 2006 from Tsnii Sudavogo Mashinostroenia. This included below-deck equipment, catch nets and the actual tail hook system.

A ground attack JH-7 aircraft was spotted with a tail hook for testing, but it is unlikely to be an aircraft actually intended for naval air complement. The Varyag is the perfect platform for such carrier landing tests, and reports exist of a Varyag–type ski jump at the Yanliang aviation test base in Xian. Folding-wing technology is crucial to China, but Russia will not sell the Su-33 to China because of illegal copying of the AL-31F engine. The J-11A, J-11B and J-10A all share this power plant. Deploying a fixed-wing carrier fighter still is possible, as France has done this with its Rafael design. China has been in discussion with Ukraine since 2006 to use carrier pilot training facilities at Odessa, Nitka and Sevastopol.

Over the past three decades, China has obtained four foreign aircraft carriers. The first was the 15,000-ton ex-HMAS Melbourne, which was towed to Dalian Shipyard in 1984 for scrap. It was studied for five years prior to dismantling. A dummy carrier deck was constructed at an airbase north of Beijing in 1985, and it was used for deck landing and flight deck handling trials with a J-8III aircraft. The next carrier was the Minsk, the first of three ex-Soviet carriers. It was bought from a South Korean scrap yard to be used for an amusement park in Shenzhen in 1998 and arrived via the Guangzhou shipyard. The third was the Kiev, which was bought in 2000 for display in a warship recreation park in Tianjin. Russia had spent five years stripping all equipment and systems after decommissioning it in 1995.

The fourth was the Varyag. China bought it from Ukraine in 1998, and it was towed from Nikolaev Shipyard to Macao to be a gambling casino. After a discrete six years, it was towed to the Dalian Shipyard in 2000. In April 2005, Varyag went into a dry dock at Dalian Shipyard for work. After being moored at the end of a Dalian Shipyard pier for four years, the carrier was towed two miles into Dalian Dry Dock Number 3 after the 2008 Olympics. Since late April 2009, intensive equipment and hull work has been continuing. China certainly is closely monitoring progress on the Indian navy’s new carrier, development of which is being assisted by Russia.

China had considered other carrier purchases. In 1995, Spain’s Bazan Shipyard negotiated to produce two 23,000-ton carriers for China. They would have been enlarged versions of a carrier that was built for Thailand. In 1996, China negotiated with France to buy the 32,000-ton Clemenceau when it was to be replaced by a new carrier. France wanted the sale contingent upon buying French electronics and Rafael carrier fighters, but this was not in China’s development plans. There were reports of a roll-on/roll-off design for a PLAN carrier similar to the British HMS Argus, but this never was a serious possibility. Rumors of Russian interest in a French carrier in late 2009 turned out to be another dead lead.

By way of comparison for carrier tonnage options, the Varyag is a 67,000-ton carrier, the Kiev and the Minsk are 44,000-ton carriers, India’s carrier is 40,000 tons, the Clemenceau is a 32,000-ton carrier, and the Thailand carrier is 23,000 tons.

As long as reports of PLAN carrier construction plans have been discussed, speculation has raged as to what shipyard would build it. As a precedent, most of the modern PLAN guided missile destroyers have had their second hull launched one year after the lead ship and usually from the same yard. If this Chinese new-construction practice holds true, then only one shipyard would receive the contract to build the first two fuel-powered carriers. Speculation is that two nuclear carriers could follow soon after the first two fuel-powered carriers. This would provide work for one or more of the shipyards not selected for the first builds.

One of the two leading candidates for the first build has been the Dalian New Shipyard, which was established in 1990 with a 365 x 80 x 12.7 meter Number 3 dock. The other is the Jiangnan China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) Shipyard with its 232 x 40 meter dock. It is one of a dozen traditional shipyards along the HuangpuRiver in the Shanghai old city. Both have experience in large tonnage hulls and modern sophisticated systems. Jiangnan had much experience with gas turbines in guided missile destroyers, so that would be a plus if they were to be the propulsion for the carriers. Dalian has a background in boiler propulsion plants.

In Shanghai, the Pudong New District was established in 1990. The first phase of two 25,000-ton and two 15,000-ton deep-water berths at Waigaoqiao was completed in 1994. In 2005, Jiangnan added a new modern Shanghai Waigaoqiao Shipyard in the new Pudong area, with two large 300,000-ton docks (of 480 x 106 meters and 350 x 76 meters) and two 600-ton gantry cranes. At about the same time, Shanghai initiated a huge plan to upgrade the three Chongming islands in the mouth of the Yangtze River. Two will be eco-friendly resort islands; but ChangxingIsland, the one closest to Pudong Shanghai, will feature a giant shipyard complex. The Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone opened the metro line 6 station in December 2007, and a new subway line 9 will have a Pudong station at the Waigaoqiao harbor container port. A 9-kilometer tunnel completed in 2010 under the Yangtze River will connect Waigaoqiao to ChangxingIsland, where a huge new shipbuilding base began construction in 2005. It is being mentioned as the new prime contender for building the first Chinese carrier.

In June 2008, the Jiangnan Shipyard Group relocated from the old site where it had been located since 1865 to ChangxingIsland. This site includes a China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) and China Shipping Jiangsu Shipbuilding base, Zhenhua Port Machinery Company base and a building material wharf. It already has a huge 580 x 120 meter Number 3 dock and a crane that is larger than any the old Jiangnan or Dalian shipyards have. The first phase of Changxing Shipyard development features four large dry docks and nine outfitting piers on a 3.8-mile coastline. Phase two of Changxing Shipyard complex will include the Hudong-Zhonghua Shipyard from old Shanghai and the Pudong New District Waigaoqiao Shipyard relocation.

Low-voltage switchboards likely will be manufactured at Zhenjiang Marine Electrical Appliance Company. If the carrier has boiler propulsion, all modern PLAN guided missile destroyer boilers are built by the Harbin Boiler Company. If gas turbine is the propulsion, plants at Harbin, Shenyang and Shanghai have experience with U.S. and German manufacturers. The propulsion plant design could have an effect on the selection of the carrier shipyard. Dalian-launched ships such as the Luda upgrade, Luhai and Lanzhou all had steam propulsion. Recent Jiangnan Shanghai construction Luhu, Luyang I and Luyang II all were gas turbine powered. China manufactured Ukraine DN-80 gas turbines for the 052B and 052C guided missile destroyers. Russia and Ukraine are the sources for most imported carrier-unique systems.

Final confirmation of when and where construction will take place may be imminent. China may announce the beginning of aircraft carrier construction on the anniversary of the founding of the PLAN on April 23. Another possible date is the National Day for the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1.

James C. Bussert is employed at the NavalSurfaceWarfareCenter, Dahlgren, Virginia, where he works on surface ship antisubmarine fire control systems.