Recent photos from a Chinese shipyard appear to show a section of a new Chinese aircraft carrier under construction. This appears to be a carrier similar to the American Nimitz class ships (100,000 ton vessels using a catapult rather than a ski jump flight deck for launching aircraft). Large ships, including warships, are often built in sections, then the sections are welded and bolted together. The section of what appears to be a carrier does not indicate the exact size of the new carrier, other than that it appears larger than the new carrier China commissioned at the end of 2012.
Last September China commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. At the time China was believed to be building the first of several locally designed aircraft carriers but the Chinese officially denied this. The only official announcements have alluded to the need for two or three aircraft carriers, in addition to the Liaoning. Construction of such large ships had not yet been seen in any shipyard. That has changed with the appearance of these new shipyard pictures.
The Liaoning is a 65,000 ton, 305 meter (999 feet) long ship that spent over a year on sea trials. During that time Liaoning was at sea for about four months. This was all in preparation for flight operations that began in November 2012 and were a success, although the Chinese built J15 (a Su-27 variant) jet fighter is still being tweaked as it participates in these carrier operations. Last year China confirmed that the Liaoning will primarily be a training carrier. The Chinese apparently plan to station up to 24 jet fighters and 26 helicopters on the Liaoning and use the ship to train pilots and other specialists for additional carriers. Meanwhile, the Liaoning will also be staffed and equipped as a combat ship as well.
The new Chinese “larger carrier” apparently means something like the recently decommissioned American USS Enterprise (CVN 65). This was the first nuclear powered carrier and it served as the prototype for the subsequent Nimitz class. It’s unclear if the new Chinese carrier will be nuclear powered. The Enterprise was an expensive design, and only one was built (instead of a class of six). While a bit longer than the later Nimitz class, it was lighter (92,000 tons displacement, versus 100,000 tons). The Enterprise was commissioned in 1961, almost 40 years after the first U.S. carrier (the Langley) entered service in 1923. In the two decades after the Langley there were tremendous changes in carrier aviation. While the innovation slowed after World War II, major changes continued into the 1950s (jet aircraft, nuclear propelled carriers, SAMs). But in the ensuing half century there has been no major innovation in basic carrier design. This has not been a problem because the carriers have proven useful, at least for the U.S. Navy (the only fleet to use such large carriers) and no one else has maintained a force of these large carriers. Only the U.S. has felt a constant need to get air power to any corner of the planet in a hurry. More importantly, no navy has been able to give battle to the U.S. carrier force since 1945. The Soviets built new anti-carrier weapons and made plans to use them but that war never occurred. China is building carriers but is not committed to having a lot of them to confront the U.S. but to intimidate its neighbors.
Liaoning is one of the two Kuznetsov class carriers that Russia began building in the 1980s. Originally the Kuznetsovs were to be 90,000 ton nuclear powered ships (the Ulanovsk class), similar to American Nimitz class carriers (complete with steam catapults). Instead, because of the high cost and the complexity of modern (American style) carriers, the Russians were forced to scale back their plans and ended up with 65,000 ton (full load) ships that lacked steam catapults and used a ski jump type flight deck instead. Nuclear power was dropped but the Kuznetsovs were still a formidable design. China may have bought or stolen details of the Ulanovsk class plans, or are simply using the concept. Then again, the new carrier may simply be a scaled up Kuznetsov/ Liaoning.
The Kuznetsovs normally carry a dozen navalized Su-27s (called Su-33s), 14 Ka-27PL anti-submarine helicopters, two electronic warfare helicopters, and two search and rescue helicopters. But the ship was built to carry as many as 36 Su-33s and sixteen helicopters. The Kuznetsovs carry 2,500 tons of aviation fuel, allowing it to generate 500-1,000 aircraft and helicopter sorties. Crew size is 2,500 (or 3,000 with a full aircraft load). While the original Kuznetsov is in Russian service, the second ship, the Varyag, was launched but not completed and work stopped in 1992. The Chinese bought the unfinished carrier in 1998, towed it to China, and spent over a decade completing it as the Liaoning.