China’s First Home-Built Carrier Officially Enters Active Service
After months of trials, this week China inducted its second aircraft carrier into the Chinese Navy. The carrier, named Shandong, is the first aircraft carrier built entirely in China and the largest warship ever built in the country. Shandong and her sister ship, Liaoning, will likely be joined by two to four more ships, forming a powerful counterweight to U.S. naval power in the Pacific.
First clear images of the Type 002 carrier's commissioning into PLAN service as the number '17' and named as "Shandong".
(Images via CCTV-1) pic.twitter.com/ZwckncO5W5
— @Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino) December 17, 2019
Shandong was commissioned at the Yulin Naval Base, on China’s Hainan Island. China military watchers had been waiting for weeks for the commissioning ceremony. A tipoff that the commissioning was imminent came in the form of a ASB-B track for People’s Liberation Army Air Force 747-8I VIP transport, a sort of Chinese Air Force One. The 747 was headed from Beijing to Hainan Island. Given the momentous nature of the event, it seemed likely that Chinese leader Xi Jinping would attend.
Sure enough, Xi was headed to Hainan to attend the commissioning. According to China’s Global Times:
Xi endorsed a (People’s Liberation Army) flag and naming certificate to the captain and political commissar of the carrier at the ceremony, which was held Tuesday afternoon with about 5,000 people in attendance.
Here’s a news report from Chinese state media:
Beijing began construction of the carrier in November 2013, and the big ship was launched in April 2017. The ship spent a year pierside fitting out and began a series of eight sea trials in May 2018. On its ninth and final sea trial it sortied from Dalian naval shipyard, transited the Taiwan Strait, and stopped at Hainan Island, its future home port.
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.
Shandong is externally similar to Liaoning, with the obvious difference of new phased array radars and slightly different shaping on the island superstructure. Internally, Chinese sources claim, the ship is capable of handling up to 36 fighter jets, 12 more than Liaoning. The twitter account @loongnaval tweeted alleged details of Shandong’s future carrier air wing:
China Navy Type 002 Aircraft Carrier Standard Configuration:
24 J-15 Fighter
3 J-15D EW Fighter
6 Z-18F ASW Helicopter
4 Z-18Y AEW&C Helicopter
2 Z-18A VIP Transport Helicopter
1 Z-8JH Medical Helicopter
2 Z-9S Rescue Helicopter pic.twitter.com/vsb0Rg4JMY
— 龙龑之 (@Loongnaval) August 27, 2019
By comparison, a U.S. Navy carrier air wing is equipped with 44 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet strike fighters and five EA-18G Growler electronic attack (EW) fighters. The U.S. Navy carrier also has up to 19 helicopters, though typically a third of those are deployed to the carrier’s escorting cruisers and destroyers.
One aircraft type a Nimitz or Ford-class carrier has and Shandong doesn’t is the E-2D Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft. A turboprop aircraft with a five person crew and advanced radar system, the E-2D can scan for enemy threats in the air and at sea for hundreds of miles in all directions. Once identified, it can then vector fighter jets or missiles from other ships in the task force to intercept the threat. [China is developing a stealth drone for that purpose.]
E-2Ds also act as flying command and control platforms, coordinating the air wing’s combat missions against aerial or ground targets. The E-2D Hawkeye allows a carrier air wing to operate more missions more efficiently, extending the air battle to a safe distance away from the actual aircraft carrier.
Shandong and Liaoning lack this critical capability. Both carriers use a ski ramp constructed on the bow instead of an aircraft catapult to help boost jet airplanes into the air. Ski ramps limit jet airplanes to light fuel and weapon loads. They also lack the power to get a turboprop airplane into the air, ruling out an aircraft like the E-2D—for now.
China is already constructing a third carrier, known for now as Type 003. The third carrier will be a departure from the first two ships, most notably in using electromagnetic aircraft launching catapults pioneered by the American carrier Gerald R. Ford. In the meantime, the PLAN is reportedly developing an E-2D-type aircraft to take advantage of the catapults and give the future carrier an early warning and command and control capability.
China will eventually build a fleet of three to six aircraft carriers. Typically, a navy must build three aircraft carriers for every one it plans to keep at sea, the logic being that one carrier is deployed, one carrier is working up to or coming off a deployment, and one carrier is in the shipyard receiving maintenance or upgrades.
In a crisis, a three-carrier force can put two ships to sea. A force of six carriers, therefore, would mean two available ships in peacetime and four or more during emergencies.
Source: Popular Mechanics