China’s second aircraft carrier (CV-17 Shandong) has been in the water since April, when it was launched. That was 25 months after construction began. At the end of 2017 CV-17 is at dockside being prepared for sea trials, which will apparently begin in early 2018. Based photographic comparisons and information officially released by the government (as a Type 001A) and unofficially by many who live or work in or near the shipyard, CV-17 is, at 315 meters (1,033 feet) three percent longer that CV-16 and displaces 72,000 tons (11 percent more than CV-16). Obvious differences are a slightly (about 10 percent) smaller control tower and about ten percent more flight deck area.
It was only two years ago that China admitted the CV-17 existed and is called a Type 001A ship rather than Type 001 because it is slightly different from its predecessor. In March 2016 China revealed more details, some of them already obvious. CV-17 is considered a new design but based on the first Chinese carrier, CV-16 (Liaoning). That first carrier was a 65,000 ton, 305 meter (999 feet) long ship that was itself a modified version of the last Cold War Russian carrier design. In 2016 China confirmed that CV-17 would also have the ski jump deck like Liaoning and would be somewhat heavier 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. Since then photos of CV-17 under construction indicate that it also incorporates 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. CV-17 could apparently operate about 20 percent more aircraft than CV-16 (50 fixed wing and helicopters versus about 40).
China has not revealed how many carriers is plans to eventually build. But based on what is being said in Chinese media and around the shipyard the performance of CV-17 will play a large role. CV-17 is expected to undergo one or two years of sea trials before entering service. But “the plan” is apparently to build two more similar carriers (CV-18 and 19) which will lose the ski jump deck and instead adopt a catapult. These two will be a bit larger than CV-17 and the first one is already under construction as a Type 002 ship and is expected to be in the water by 2020 and in service by 2024. One thing that might delay the Type 002 is the decision on which catapult system (steam or electric) to use. The U.S. Navy has had problems getting its EMALS (electromagnetic aircraft launch system) to work effectively and the Chinese may be waiting to see how that works out before making their decision. The Type 002 will have a steam propulsion system but one that will produce a lot more electricity (for laser weapons and catapult). After the two catapult equipped carriers are evaluated it is believed that two nuclear powered carriers are planned (CVN-20 and 21). These will be similar to the American Nimitz class CVNs.
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. China is already preparing for that by building enough escort and support ships, along with air wings, to keep several carrier task forces (each with one carrier) busy while one or more carriers sidelined by months of maintenance and upgrades.
Recent revelations about the Type 001A carrier were not a total surprise as there had been reports that a large aircraft carrier (or parts of it) 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 was an early Chinese Navy proposal for a CVN and that has apparently been refined to something that is similar to the Nimitz.
At one point it was believed that the first Chinese CVN would be more like the 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. CVN 65 was active until 2012 and decommissioned in early 2017, two months before the second Chinese carrier was launched.
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.
The Chinse Navy is very popular with most Chinese and its commanders are enthusiastic about expanding in order to protect the seaborne trade that the modern Chinese economy depends on. For thousands of years before that Chinese rulers did not consider naval power important because it wasn’t. Now it is and the navy is getting the money and encouragement to do what China has never done before.