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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

China’s Aircraft Carrier Fleet: What Do We Know About It?

Fujian Aircraft Carrier China
Fujian, China's new aircraft carrier. Image Credit: Chinese Internet.

As is well-known to anyone paying serious attention to world affairs, China’s and Russia’s respective totalitarian tyrants, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, have become awfully buddy-buddy as of late, which is quite a reversal of the many decades of animosity between the two nations.  Indeed, former UK Prime Minister Liz Truss touched upon this Xi-Putin unholy alliance during her speech yesterday at the Heritage Foundation’s 2023 Margaret Thatcher Freedom Lecture. That said, Putin must be secretly feeling somewhat envious of his Red Chinese counterpart, especially in the area of military hardware performance; not only is Beijing’s Chengdu J-20 Wēilóng 5th Generation fighter performing much better than Moscow’s counterpart Sukhoi Su-57 “Bandit,” but China’s aircraft carrier fleet is proving itself to be much ore reliable than Russia’s laughable basket case of an aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov.

With China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) having conducted yet another intimidation exercise/show of force, this time simulating its first aircraft carrier strike on Taiwan, this is as good and timely occasion as any to take an updated look at the PLAN carrier fleet. For the sake of brevity and spatial limitations, this article will focus strictly on the PRC’s homegrown aircraft carriers as opposed to their foreign imported carriers that had been retired by their original users (such as the British-built Australian HMAS Melbourne or the ex-Soviet carriers Varyag, Minsk, and Kiev).

Shandong (山东舰)

Since Shandong (NATO reporting name “Kuznetsov Mod.” [“modified’]) is the carrier that conducted that aforementioned simulated strike and has therefore provided the freshest source of current headlines, we’ll start with her. Shandong, a so-called Type 002 carrier and named for Shandong Province, is the PRC’s first domestically produced aircraft carrier – though she wasn’t the first to actually go operational (more on that in a bit) – and was laid down in March 2013, launched on 26 April 2017, and commissioned on 17 December 2019.

The ship has a fully-laden displacement of 70,000 tons, a hull length of 1,000 feet 8 inches, and a beam width of 246 feet 1 inch. Powered by conventional steam turbine engines with four shafts, the vessel’s maximum speed is 31 knots (36 mph). Reportedly – at least according to internal PLAN claims – the vessel can host up to 36 fighter aircraft such as the Shenyang J-15. For self-defense, the ship wields three Type 1130 close-in weapons systems (CIWS) and three HQ-10 18-cell surface-to-air missile systems (SAMs).

According to CNN reporter Brad Lendon,” Meanwhile, the Japan Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed in a press release that Japanese forces had observed 80 fixed-wing aircraft take-offs and landings during the Chinese exercises from the Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong, which was in the Pacific Ocean east of Taiwan and about 230 kilometers (143 miles) south of the Japanese island of Miyako in Okinawa prefecture…Japan scrambled Air Self-Defense Force fighter jets in response, the Joint Chiefs said.”

Liaoning (辽宁舰)

Named for Liaoning Province, this Type 001 carrier was the first “flattop” to actually be commissioned into PLAN service, having attained this status on 25 September 2012 after having her keel laid on 6 December 1985 and launching on 4 December 1988. Why the long delay? As Kyle Mizokami explained in a December 2019 article for Popular Mechanics:

“China’s first carrier, Liaoning, was originally built as an aircraft carrier for the Soviet Union. Left unfinished after the end of the Cold War, it was picked up by Chinese businessmen as a novelty and eventually passed into ownership of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. The PLAN spent several years studying and then upgrading the carrier to modern standards. Liaoning is generally regarded as a training carrier for the PLAN to learn the dangerous work of carrier-based naval aviation, from deck-handling to takeoffs and landings.”

That said, back in late 2018, Chinese state media announced that the carrier would attain combat-ready status in 2019.

Liaoning has a full displacement of 60,900 tons, a length of 1,005 feet 3 inches, and a beam of 244 feet 1 inch. Max speed is 32 knots (37 mph), with a capacity for 24 of those J-15 fighter planes. Defensive armament is the same as the Shandong.

Fujian (福建舰)

Named for Fujian Province (hey, see a pattern here?), this Type 003 carrier was laid down sometime between March 2015 and February 2016 and launched on 19 June 2022 but is still fitting out and therefore hasn’t been officially commissioned yet (that probably won’t happen for another three or four years). To quote CCN’s Brad Lendon again (in a separate article from the one previously cited): “The Fujian – by far China’s biggest, most modern and most powerful aircraft carrier to date – is the 80,000-ton jewel in the crown of a military expansion that has seen Beijing grow its navy into the world’s largest…Its new combat systems – such as an electromagnetic catapult-assisted launch system – show China is fast catching up with the United States, experts say, and will give it the ability to launch more aircraft, more quickly, and with more ammunition.”

How many more aircraft? Purely speculation at this point, but for what it’s worth, the website opines that “Judging from the size of the Fujian this carrier can accommodate around 60 aircraft.” The ship is 984 feet 3 inches long and 249 feet 4 inches abeam. Speed and self-defensive armament information is still TBD at this point in time.

Looking Ahead

As CAPT (USN, Ret.) Carl Otis Schuster, former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, warns us, “China has now launched three carriers and brought two into full operational status during a period where the US Navy has struggled to bring one new unit to full operational status…They are building their navy at a faster rate than the US and all of its allies.”

Scary times we live in, or as that one Chinese proverb says, “May you live in interesting times.”

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS)

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).