UPDATE (October 20, 2020):
(Check out this update, and several others, since we released this original story back in 2014! You’ll find them at the end of this story)
(ORIGINAL POST – November 22, 2014)
Since the 1970s, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) has expressed interest in operating an aircraft carrier as part of its blue (international) waters aspirations. According to a 2009 report in Chinadaily.com, from an anonymous Japanese government official, then-Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie told his Japanese counterpart Yasukazu Hamada, while the two met in Japan in September 2009, that China was the only major nation in the world with no carriers. “China has a formidable task of protecting its vast sea territory,” Liang was quoted as saying. According to the report, he then went on to then state that China will build an aircraft carrier in the future.
Of course, China already owned an aircraft carrier at that time. The Russian aircraft carrier Varyag was incomplete when sold to China by the Ukraine in 2000, apparently lacking engines and a lot of other necessary equipment. At that time, China announced it would be retrofitting the ship to become a floating casino in Macau!
The ship arrived in China in 2003, following a two-year delay: Turkey balked at its transit of the Turkish Straits and the Dardanelles, an apparent violation of the Montreux Convention. Then followed a hazardous voyage to China under tow. At one point the ship broke free from its tugs in the Eastern Mediterranean and was almost abandoned. It spent nearly a decade being reconstructed in Chinese shipyards. Most experts believed that China would NEVER get its act together and have a working aircraft carrier.
Until, that is, the BBC reported on June 8, 2011 that the People’s Liberation Army Chief of the General Staff Chen Bingde had confirmed China was already constructing at least one locally-designed aircraft carrier, in the same shipyards where the original Liaoning had been redeveloped. The West certainly wasn’t going to give China the know-how to have their own aircraft carrier fleet, but apparently they had learned enough from the decade spent retrofitting and rebuilding the Russian carrier.
Which, incidentally, was finally commissioned on September 25, 2012. In the most publicized PLA Navy modernization event ever, after a year of extensive sea trials, the aircraft carrier, formerly known as the Varyag, finally entered operational service as the Liaoning (named after the province where the ship was refitted and refurbished). It was announced that it would be used primarily as a training platform “with no assigned aircraft”. Official statements said that the vessel would also help China defend its interests (emphasis mine) – apparently forever erasing the “floating casino” idea. Not even two months later, they had already conducted launching and landing jet fighters on its deck.
Hinting that two carriers just weren’t going to be enough, Chinese military expert Du Wenlong told the Chinese state media arm, the People’s Daily: “If China had only one aircraft carrier, it would not conform to China’s status as a world power, nor to the demands imposed by the length of the coastline. Considering China’s ocean environment, two aircraft carriers are not enough to safeguard marine interests. If China has three aircraft carriers, they can maintain a sustained combat capability: maintenance, safeguarding and patrol respectively,”
So it as quite a shock when, on June 13, 2013, the China Daily Mail reported that China will build six aircraft carriers by 2020. Elite Reference magazine is also quoted as saying, “There has been analysis that China will carry out its plan for aircraft carrier construction by stages. At the first stage, four conventional carriers will be built; while at the second stage, at least two nuclear carriers will be built. They are expected to be delivered to Chinese navy around 2020.”
And they are moving full steam ahead with that goal. On January 20, 2014, in a Global Times report sourcing Hong Kong-based Ta Kung Pao newspaper, Wang Min, the Party chief of Northeast China’s Liaoning Province, told a panel at the annual session of the provincial legislature that a second Chinese carrier is being built at a shipyard in the port city of Dalian. According to the official, construction is expected to be completed in six years, and China will eventually have at least four aircraft carriers. Wang also said the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) needs a total of four carriers by 2020.
An October 22 report in the South China Morning Post, quoting Kanwa Asian Defence, an English-language monthly defense review produced in Toronto, it was announced that Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard was preparing to start work on the second locally designed aircraft carrier.
FULL STOP. 4 CARRIERS… in 6 YEARS? And “needs them by 2020”? With the possibility of 2 further NUCLEAR carriers soon thereafter? What on earth is this sudden necessity dictated by – Japanese, Australian or US aggression in the Pacific? What rubbish. At a full complement of even 5 carriers (not to mention the proposed 7), the Chinese would tip the balance of power in the Pacific and would be the largest naval presence in that region. According to DefenseTech:
“the PLA Navy would then present quite a power in the global seas. As pointed out by the U.S. Naval Institute, a four carrier navy would allow the Chinese to keep one carrier on patrol at all time.”
Our Western governments and media have failed us, so we’re Calling Out China: Why do you suddenly need 4 carriers in 6 years, when you didn’t have 1 working carrier 2 years ago? What is your real end game? Why are you on a 2020 timeline?
Stay tuned folks, we’re going to keep watch over this one.
UPDATE (January 12, 2016):
China has at last formally acknowledged that it has a new aircraft carrier under construction, the first to be built in China and the second in the People’s Liberation Army-Navy’s order of battle. Unbelievable, considering we first reported it back in November 2014! (See the full original post below)
However, according to South China Morning Post, what is news is that the Chinese will be using a Russian blueprint to finish the current carrier. The new warship will be lighter than the Liaoning but have more space for fighter jets, according to Ifeng.com, an online news arm of Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV.
J-15 fighter jet pilots and crew were training on the Liaoning slightly and be able to transition seamlessly to the new carrier, the report said.
As we reported in November 2014, the PLA Navy appears to have embarked on a substantial carrier program, probably with the intention of creating four and perhaps up to six carrier battle groups. Chinese commentators have publicly acknowledged the need for at least three units in order to have an effective carrier capability. The rehabilitated ex-Russian carrier Liaoning, designated Carrier 16, has been the start of this effort, although its reliability has yet to be confirmed.
UPDATE (January 26, 2017):
On April 26, as was reported above, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) launched its first domestically constructed aircraft carrier from a shipyard in Dailan. The as-yet-unnamed carrier still requires much more additional work before it joins PLAN’s fleet. But the ship’s construction began less than five years ago (in November of 2012), and it only moved into full dry-dock construction in 2015. And China appears poised to churn out additional new aircraft carriers even faster, based upon the experience acquired in this first homegrown carrier project.
In March, Zhu Chenghu, a professor at China’s National Defense University, told China Daily:
“China launching its first domestically designed aircraft carrier is a monumental step toward building a world-class navy. The valuable lessons learned from building a carrier from scratch will help China build more carriers faster in the future and enable them to reach combat readiness quicker.”
For the sake of comparison, the US Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford, began construction in 2009 and launched in 2013; it is still undergoing outfitting, and no commissioning date has yet been set. While the Ford is certainly a more complicated and much larger vessel than the new Chinese carrier, the US has been building aircraft carriers since World War II. China’s only previous experience with aircraft carriers comes from work on the PLAN’s first carrier, the CNS Liaoning—the rebuilt former Soviet ship that China purchased from Ukraine in the mid-1990s. It took nearly 16 years to complete the Liaoning, which was purchased under somewhat shady circumstances.
UPDATE (April 26, 2017):
China has officially launched its second aircraft carrier – the first homegrown carrier the People’s Liberation Army-Navy has ever built. This carrier was not even officially announced by Beijing until January 2016, even though we first reported it here on November 2014!
The full story from the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom can be found here.
UPDATE (October 20, 2020):
It’s been 3 years since our last update on the Chinese aircraft carrier program. Where’s it at today? RealClearDefense.com reported on April 20 of this year that:
“While one of the United States’ aircraft carriers, the USS Theodore Roosevelt is dealing with a coronavirus outbreak that has now become deadly, one of China’s aircraft carriers sailed past Taiwan in a show of force. Though Taiwan scrambled jets to intercept and monitor the sail-by, it was perhaps not the best moment for the U.S. Navy…
China currently has two aircraft carriers, with a third in early construction, and a fourth planned for sometime in the mid 2020 or 2030s.” [Emphasis mine]
In addition, these high-resolution satellite images were posted by South China Morning Post one year ago (October 17, 2019) of the incredible expansion work taking place one year before that (October 2018) of the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, taken in September 2019 by the Washington-based think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). They show construction work on the 3rd carrier, the “Type 002”, in the shipyard’s dry dock, with a series of prefabricated sections, bulkheads and other components stacked nearby.
You know what this means? The Chinese have created a process for building aircraft carriers, so they can be mass produced. Several years ago, over 10,000 people were working at that shipyard – renovating the first carrier they had purchased, and manufacturing their first home-build carrier, SIDE BY SIDE, at the same time.
Am I being overly dramatic? I’m afraid not.
At the turn of the last century, the British Navy was the most powerful in the world. World War II clearly changed that, with the American, German and Japanese navies dominating the world.
However, today, it is China that rules the waves. In just the past 5 years, they have built as many naval ships as the entire British Navy has at its disposal today.
“The single image below of a Shanghai shipyard shows nine recently constructed Chinese warships. For context, the current schedule sees the U.S. Navy launching a handful of AEGIS destroyers each year. China’s Navy, known as the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy), is modernizing at an impressive rate. And on a vast scale. A key ingredient is the construction of a fleet of large destroyers, amphibious warships and aircraft carriers. The below photo, snapped from an airplane window on December 13, and shared on social media, captures the vast scale of this construction.
Nearest the camera, a line of four newly constructed destroyers catch the sunlight. Two are Type-052D air-defense destroyers, generally equivalent to the U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke Class AEGIS destroyers. These displace 7,500 tons and can carry 64 large missiles including long range surface to air missiles (SAMs) and cruise missiles. The other two are larger Type-055 Class ships. These are also described as air-defense destroyers but are verging on cruisers in terms of size and fit. These are about twice the displacement and carry over 100 large missiles.
Behind them is the shipyard with its mass of construction halls and cranes. In the basin where the newest ships are docked after launch are another four destroyers. Again there are both Type-052D and Type-055 ships. Together with another Type-055 under construction on the left of the image, this brings the total number of large destroyers visible to 9.
To put that into context, the Royal Navy’s entire destroyer fleet is just 6 ships. And this yard is just part of a much bigger construction program.” [Emphasis mine]