China’s First Domestically Built Carrier Set to Begin Sea Trials

Q1: In what ways does the Type 001A differ from China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning? How significant are these differences?

A1: The Liaoning began its life as a “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser” for the Soviet Navy. It was later purchased by a Chinese entity and underwent years of refits to modernize its hull, radar, and electronics.

Five years after the Liaoning was commissioned, China launched the Type 001A on April 26, 2017. Unlike its Soviet-built predecessor, the Type 001A is China’s first domestically built carrier. Both carriers are similar in size and use a STOBAR (short take-off but arrested recovery) system for the launch and recovery of aircraft. Although similar to the Liaoning, the Type 001A features some notable enhancements, such as a larger airwing and improved radar systems.

The Type 001A is a major milestone for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). It is one thing to refit an old Soviet carrier, as was done with the Liaoning. It is something else entirely to build one from scratch. With the Type 001A, Chinese ship designers and naval personnel are not just figuring out how to build one ship, but several carriers—each of which will boast new and improved technology. China is working toward incrementally matching some of the best carrier technology in the world, and the Type 001A is a big step in the that direction.

Q2: What are some of the key areas where Chinese and U.S. aircraft carriers differ?

A2: U.S. aircraft carriers field cutting-edge technology, which gives them several key advantages over their Chinese counterparts. The Liaoning and Type 001A rely on ski jump-style launch systems instead of the steam catapults used by the United States, forcing Chinese aircraft to expend considerable internal fuel during takeoff. Aircraft launched from U.S. carriers have a significantly higher maximum takeoff weight, which enables them to carry a larger payload and more fuel. U.S. carriers also enjoy larger airwings with more advanced aircraft.

The newest U.S. carriers, those of the USS Gerald Ford-class, utilize the much-vaunted electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS). EMALS can launch heavier aircraft compared to steam catapults, and it puts significantly less stress on airframes thereby reducing maintenance needs. The need to improve its carriers’ launch systems is not lost on the Chinese. It is rumored in both the Chinese and U.S. media that China’s third or fourth carrier may be outfitted with EMALS.

U.S. carriers are also powered by nuclear reactors, which require only one midlife refueling during their approximately 50-year service life. Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers also have higher cruising speeds than those driven by the steam turbine powerplants used by the Liaoning and Type 001A. In late February, the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, which refitted the Liaoning and constructed the Type 001A, revealed plans to speed up the development of the PLAN’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier.

Importantly, successful carrier operations depend on more than just technology. The United States has decades of experience operating and maintaining carrier fleets, which gives it a massive advantage in terms of personnel. The Chinese are still in the process of training its pilots and personnel to carry out carrier operations and updating its naval doctrine to reflect the introduction of carriers into its navy. While over time the Chinese will close some of the aforementioned technology gaps, it will still continue to lag the United States in terms of the experience of its carrier operators and naval aviators.

Q3: Why is China building aircraft carriers, and how many will it build?

A3: As part of China’s ongoing military modernization, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has made great strides over the past decade and a half. China now fields one of the largest navies in the world and one of the most technologically advanced forces as well. Tied in with this modernization effort has been a concerted push to develop an aircraft carrier program that can be used to secure Chinese interests both close to home and, in time, to project power further afield.

Estimates of how many carriers China will ultimately build range from 6 to 10. Work on China’s third carrier, the Type 002 or CV-18, is already underway. As is often the case with China, the details here are a little murky due to Beijing’s lack of transparency regarding military procurement and technology development. Given the pace at which China is scaling up it carrier capabilities, however, it would not be a surprise if China fields up to four carrier battle groups by 2030.

It is important, however, to keep in mind that these vessels will likely have vastly different capabilities. A carrier with EMALS would be much more capable than the Liaoning, which may ultimately be slated to serve as a training vessel. Equally important is that operating a carrier fleet is a multistage process. While China is rapidly developing the centerpieces of these fleets, it must still train the necessary personnel to operate and maintain its carriers. Sea trials and flight tests (discussed below) can take several years to complete.

Q4: Now that the Type 001A is set to begin sea trials, how long will it be before it is fully operational?

A4: If there are no significant setbacks during the sea trials, we are probably still a couple of years away from the Type 001A being ready for regular carrier operations. Sea trials for the Liaoning lasted about a year. Following sea trials, the Liaoning underwent almost two years of flight tests. We might see a similar timeline for the Type 001A. Using lessons learned from the Liaoning’s sea trials and flight tests might streamline these exercises, but it is still a lengthy process.

Importantly, Type 001A’s operational status will depend on more than just the ship itself. China is new to the carrier game, and it will likely face some personnel challenges along the way. Fielding a corps of trained pilots, operators, and technicians takes time. Given the importance that Beijing has placed on building a successful fleet and avoiding accidents (especially fatal accidents), it may also want to progress cautiously to minimize risk as it integrates the Type 001A into the PLAN.

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Matthew P. Funaiole is a fellow with the CSIS China Power Project.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Matthew P. Funaiole
Vice President, iDeas Lab, Andreas C. Dracopoulos Chair in Innovation and Senior Fellow, China Power Project

Bonnie S. Glaser