Chinese state controlled mass media have been doing a lot of stories this year about the new Chinese aircraft carrier force. This is seen mainly for frightening the neighbors because carrier aviation experts are still waiting for key indicators of Chinese progress in developing carrier warfare capability. The items that have not happened yet include key stuff like launching long range combat missions and have aircraft take off and land on a carrier in rough weather. Other missing items are Z-18 helicopters operating from a carrier while carrying out early warning or anti-submarine missions. The sole Chinese carrier has also not been seen operating with its full complement of 36 aircraft (fixed wing and helicopters) yet. That may be the result of not enough J-15 fighters manufactured yet. That may also be the case with the existing specially equipped helicopters like the Z-18J for AEW (Airborne Early Warning, using a large onboard radar) and the Z-18F for ASW (anti-submarine warfare using dipping sonar and lightweight torpedoes). China is aware of these shortcomings and the Chinese Navy appears to be assembling the entire Liaoning air group and preparing to take it to sea before the end of 2016.
In 2013 China revealed that the Liaoning Carrier air wing would eventually consist of twelve helicopters (four Z-18J early warning, six Z-18F anti-submarine and two Z-9C search and rescue) and 24 J-15 jet fighters (navalized Su-27s). None of these aircraft have been seen together yet, which is needed to complete the Liaoning air group. The Z-18F is the first Chinese made anti-submarine helicopter that works (at least on paper). It is described as a 13 ton naval helicopter that carries a dipping sonar, 32 sonobuoys and up to four light (235 kg/517 pound) anti-submarine torpedoes. The Z-18F is too heavy for most Chinese warships and will be used on Chinese carriers and large amphibious ships (that look like small carriers). The Z-18F appears to be a major upgrade to the earlier Z-8F, which was not acceptable. The Z-18J is equipped with a radar that can spot aircraft out to 150 kilometers. The Z-9 is four ton helicopter with a two ton payload. China has built over 200 of the Z-9s and many have been armed (with twin 23mm cannon, torpedoes, anti-tank missiles and air-to-air missiles.) The Z-9D, armed with four TL-10 missiles, while the Z-9EC simply has anti-submarine equipment installed instead. The Z-9C is an unarmed version of the Z-9EC. Both the Z-18 and Z-9 are based on French helicopters that China has long produced under license.
In March 2016 China revealed more details about their new, locally built, aircraft carrier. The existence of this ship was only made official at the end of 2015. The new carrier will indeed be a new design but it will also be based on the Liaoning, first Chinese carrier that was a rebuilt Russian ship. Liaoning is a 65,000 ton, 305 meter (999 feet) long ship that is actually a modified version of the last Cold War Russian carrier design. China also confirmed that the new carrier would also have the ski jump deck like Liaoning. The navy revealed that the new carrier would be “more than 50,000 tons” and incorporate new design features that would enable it to carry more aircraft (mainly the J-15) in a larger hanger deck (just below the flight deck) as well as more fuel and aircraft weapons. The new carrier will be non-nuclear and apparently at least the same size as the Liaoning but incorporate design features that will make it more capable of surviving combat damage as well as operating more efficiently and effectively as a carrier. In addition to the Chinese built J-15 fighter the new carrier will also have some early-warning radar aircraft as well as some anti-submarine aircraft as well as some helicopters. China still won’t reveal how many carriers is plans to eventually build. Apparently they are going to wait and see how the design of the second carrier works, make necessary modifications and then build another two to five. Since carriers spend a lot of time in port getting upgrades and maintenance you need three or more in order to guarantee having at least two available at all times for operations. The first Chinese built carrier appears to be largely completed but won’t be ready to enter service until 2018 or later.
Recent revelations about the new carrier were not a total surprise as there had been reports that a large aircraft carrier was under construction in northwest China (Dalian) since 2013. One of the best sources of information on Chinese warship construction is the Internet. Thousands of Chinese naval buffs living close to major shipyards provide a steady supply of photos on the web. The Chinese government tried to prevent this but since 2005 came to realize that cracking down on enthusiastic and Internet savvy Chinese fans of the navy was not a wise move. A lot of important secrets are still preserved by building parts of ships in a shed and a lot of the most valuable military secrets are with equipment installed inside the ship or behind a wall. So the government allows all (with a few exceptions) these photos to appear.
Then there are some interesting official photos. In mid-2014 photos of a carrier model being displayed at an official event appeared on the Chinese Internet. The detailed model had the hull number 18 and the ship looked similar to an American CVN (a Nimitz class nuclear aircraft carrier). The Chinese CVN has four catapults and three elevators and much other evidence of being nuclear and very similar to the Nimitz class.
This is not what was thought to be under construction at Dalian but rather a proposal for carrier number three or four or whatever. The first Chinese carrier, the Liaoning is hull number 16 and the 2013 photos showed sections of a new Chinese carrier under construction. This ship would probably have hull number 17. All this implied that the third Chinese carrier, the second one built in China, would be nuclear and probably closer in design to the recently decommissioned American USS Enterprise (CVN 65). This was the first American nuclear powered carrier and it served as the prototype for the subsequent Nimitz class. 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. That is the kind of last success that the Chinese like to emulate.
Chinese are keen students of history, their own as well as that of others. Chinese ship designers know all about the Langley (the first American carrier) and the Enterprise. The Chinese are also well aware that in the two decades after the USS 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 does not yet seem committed to having a lot of them to confront the U.S. but rather just a few to intimidate its neighbors.