The Imminent Arrival of Chinese Aircraft Carriers - Development History and Strategic Rationale

The Imminent Arrival of Chinese Aircraft Carriers - Development History and Strategic Rationale
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The People’s Liberation Army Navy: An Expanding Mission

After the successful defeat of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Chinese forces in the 1940’s, China’s navy did not become the focus of its military expenditures for many years. China has traditionally thought of internal dissent and foreign land invasion as its primary security concerns, and so the People’s Liberation Army constituted its primary defensive force. But as China’s economy and international prowess has grown in the 1990’s and 2000’s, it has become increasingly reliant on imports of fuel and other raw materials from trade partners in Africa and the Middle East.

The modernization and expansion of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has increased in pace as this trade volume has increased. The PLAN has in the past largely focused on submarines and surface vessels such as destroyers, frigates, and patrol ships, but the development of a true “blue water” navy - one capable of operating far from its home bases to protect sea lines of communication - has been underway for the past decade. China’s navy is now comprised of over two dozen destroyers, fifty frigates, ten nuclear powered and forty diesel-electric powered submarines. Many have been purchased from Russia, but the newest are of indigenous design. Within the next few years, this already impressive force is expected to be joined by the first home-built Chinese aircraft carrier.

Chinese Aircraft Carriers: Long in Development, Soon to be Deployed

China’s interest in acquiring or producing aircraft carriers has long been clear. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, China has purchased two Kiev class small carriers - the Kiev and Minsk - which are currently floating entertainment parks for tourists but which it must be assumed have been intensely studied. It also completed the purchase and transfer of the Varyag, the uncompleted sister to Russia’s only remaining aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. Likely to be the first deployed Chinese aircraft carrier, Varyag is currently undergoing extensive refitting and will likely be launched in order to begin training Chinese sailors and pilots in the successful operation of an aircraft carrier.

Chinese aircraft carrier Varyag

But the Varyag, regardless of her condition when completed, is not an indigenous aircraft carrier, and China has shown a great interest in being militarily self-sufficient. Because of this, the launch of a new Chinese aircraft carrier designed and constructed solely by Chinese naval engineers is desirable both for reasons of military independence as well as international prestige. Only a few navies operate aircraft carriers of any size, and of them only the United States, Russia, France, Brazil and India (once the Vikramaditya conversion of the ex-Russian Admiral Gorshkov is completed in 2011) are capable of launching standard fixed wing combat aircraft rather than vertical take-off or landing designs. Britain, having relied on Harrier-carrying Invincible class aircraft carriers since the 1970’s, is currently building two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers that will operate the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter when commissioned around 2020. The remaining members of the carrier club- Japan, Thailand, Italy, and Spain- only operate carriers that can launch helicopters and VTOL aircraft such as the Harrier or F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.

Chinese aircraft carriers are expected to be fully capable carriers operating powerful naval aircraft such as the Chinese version of the Su-33 Flanker, the J-15.

Likely Characteristics of a New Chinese Aircraft Carrier

China tends to keep the details of new military equipment under wraps even after the existence of a new piece of technology has been revealed to the public, but certain likely aspects of a future Chinese aircraft carrier design can be derived from the intensive study of the Kiev, Minsk, and Varyag as well as the reconstruction of the Varyag into a vessel reported to be named the Shi Lang which could begin sea trials in 2011.

French, British, American Carriers

First, it is unlikely that the vessel will be near to the size of any of the US Navy’s “supercarriers” which weigh in at over 100,000 tons. Chinese aircraft carriers of the current generation will likely remain in the western Pacific and Indian oceans when operationally deployed, and they won’t need the range or striking power of the US Nimitz class.

Second, China’s apparent reverse engineering of the SU-33 Naval Flanker into their own J-15 fighter indicates that the vessel will not be meant to launch major sorties of strike aircraft. The Flanker can carry air to ground ordnance, but is primarily an air superiority fighter.

Third, it will be a very long time before China will have enough carriers to openly engage the US Navy at sea. This means that local naval powers like Japan and India, who operate helicopter carriers and small full deck carriers respectively, will constitute the primary surface ship threat to China’s maritime interests.

Future Chinese Aircraft Carriers - Enlarged Versions of the Varyag?

The PLAN’s most important mission is the protection of China’s coastline from attack. As China’s need for foreign imports increases its navy’s mission will include defending its shipping lanes. And because its major regional opponents in the near future are Taiwan, Japan, and India - all of which are only accessible for the most part from the sea - China’s navy will need to capable of performing power projection missions in order to challenge them.

SU-33 from

The acquisition and reconstruction of Soviet designs considered alongside the general advisability of maintaining similar logistical footprints (stockpiling spare parts, repair of wear and tear) means that the new Chinese aircraft carriers (at least of the first generation) will likely be similar in design to the existing Chinese aircraft carrier: Varyag.

Chinese Aircraft Carrier Projected Capabilities

An enlarged Varyag design would result in a Chinese carrier displacing over 60,000 tons, with a flight deck length more than 1000 feet long. The major changes to the base design would likely be in organic armament and the arrangement of the flight deck.

Chinese Aircraft Carrier Inspiration

The Kuznetsovs were built with a ski jump flight deck - aircraft power their engines to maximum thrust and leave the flight deck at an upward angle in order to take off instead of being thrown off the bow by a catapult. This feature could be eliminated entirely in a new Chinese aircraft carrier design - newer aircraft carriers of similar size now under construction in France and Britain (the Queen Elizabeth Class in particular) rely on catapult launch systems.

The Kuznetsov and Varyag carried a dozen SSN-19 “Shipwreck” missiles to provide them with offensive capabilities not dependent on an air wing. However, these weapons' usefulness is doubtful - if an opposing ship were within range, it would either be weak enough that escorts could engage it or sufficiently powerful that only an air wing could inflict any damage. They can be expected to remain absent in any indigenous Chinese design.

All in all, an expanded size over the Varyag and the expected reduction in missile armament would likely increase space devoted to the air wing, which could exceed the thirty-three fixed wing and twelve helicopter complement of the original Kuznetsov design.

Operational Use of Chinese Aircraft Carriers

Carriers are inherently offensive weapons platforms, and the most likely use of Chinese aircraft carriers would be to enforce a naval blockade of Taiwan or from contested islands in the Western Pacific. Deployment of a carrier would effectively extend the umbrella of Chinese air power far beyond its coastline and so provide an operational advantage. New Chinese aircraft carriers would most likely be expected to patrol China’s long coastline and lead task forces out into the Indian Sea to challenge any threat to its shipping.

Although the deployment of a home-built Chinese aircraft carrier would be a major step towards solidifying its power projection capabilities, the PLAN would still be far from able to directly challenge the United States at sea. China is clearly taking steps to protect its interests from US military involvement, and much has been made of the ‘Chinese aircraft carrier killer’ under development - a ballistic missile carrying a conventional warhead guided by GPS satellites capable of striking US carriers at sea. A Chinese carrier could be deployed as a sort of “fleet in being” - a threat that US naval commanders could not lightly discount - that could be used in conjunction with the threat of ballistic missile attack to restrict US Naval movement and prevent its intervention in a blockade or amphibious assault.

Regardless of their use, the coming deployment of Chinese aircraft carriers will mark China’s accession into the top tier of world naval powers.

Sources and Image Credits


Wordsworth Colour Guide: Modern Warships, 1992

An Illustrated Guide to the Modern Soviet Navy by John Jordan, 1982 Salamander Booke

The Great Book of Fighter Planes by Lightbody, Poyer, and Cole, 1990 Beekman House

Building China’s Aircraft Carriers: Return of Zheng He

Is China Stealing Russia’s Su-33?

All images via Wiki Commons, Images 2,3,5 by employees of the US Department of Defense, Image 1 by Boleslav1, Image 4 courtesy of the website of the President of the Russian Federation