On August 26, 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.
Adding a second aircraft carrier will dramatically increase China’s ability to project power in the Western Pacific. There are limits to the reach of the Liaoning and its new sister ship, however. Both are conventional steam-powered ships rather than nuclear-powered. The new carrier has a displacement of 50,000 metric tons (slightly larger than the Liaoning), which is half the size of the Ford. But while the Liaoning has been outfitted as a training ship, Zhu pointed out in March, the new carrier will be China’s first real combat carrier. And as China military strategist PLA Major General Peng Guangqian explained, while China’s new carrier is not on par with US aircraft carriers, the difference is partially “because US Navy doctrine requires unchallenged global dominance, while Chinese carriers are mainly used for self-defense.”
That “self-defense” is likely to be focused on “sea denial” operations, particularly in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and Yellow Sea. But the new combat carrier could also allow China to conduct operations much further afield.