China's odyssey to aircraft carrier

Shenzhen Daily
Zhang Tao

CHINA officially launched its first homemade aircraft carrier in the coastal city Dalian, northeastern Liaoning Province on April 26.

With a displacement of about 50,000 metric tons, the 311-meter-long ship is the largest surface vessel China has ever built with its own technology. A domestically made aircraft carrier marks a very significant step forward for the country towards enhancing its naval combat capability and safeguarding its legitimate rights in the open seas.

Looking back on history, China has been dreaming of building its own aircraft carrier for more than 60 years. In 1953, only four years after the founding of the People’s Republic, then Chinese leader Chairman Mao ordered the comprehensive strengthening of the Navy. However, due to economic limitations and technology deficiencies at that time, China started by developing some much smaller and less sophisticated vessels such as submarines, destroyers and frigates to accumulate experience in shipbuilding.

In 1985, China bought the retired Melbourne aircraft carrier from Australia and towed it to Guangzhou. This was the first time for Chinese researchers to get to know the structure of an aircraft carrier. In 1998 and 2000, China bought two retired Soviet aircraft carriers, the Minsk and the Kiev, to continue the research. The Minsk was later stationed at the Dameisha beach in Shenzhen as a theme park for many years. With the help of the three gigantic vessels from abroad, Chinese researchers have obtained a basic understanding of all aspects of aircraft carrier construction.

Currently, the PLA Navy operates a single aircraft carrier, the CNS Liaoning. It was originally an incomplete former Soviet-era cruiser named Varyag. In 2002, China bought the vessel and sent it to the Dalian Shipyard for reconstruction. Before selling it to China, Ukraine — the country who owned the aircraft carrier after the disintegration of the Soviet Union — dismantled all facilities and weaponry in the vessel under great pressure from the United States. After receiving 10 years’ extensive refitting in China, the ship was put into military service in September 2012 as the first aircraft carrier of the Chinese Navy.

With the launch of the first homemade aircraft carrier at the end of last month, China will have two aircraft carriers. Nevertheless, there is still much work to do for the new carrier after the launching ceremony. It will take another two to three years for its outfitting process before it can embark on sea trials and be commissioned for military service. Engineers will test and finetune all equipment already mounted on the colossal ship, and install aviation, radar and weaponry systems.

As an improved version of the CNS Liaoning, the new aircraft carrier has made much progress. It differs little from its predecessor the Liaoning in appearance but can hold as many as 36 fighter jets, or 50 percent more than the Liaoning. However, compared with its advanced Western counterparts, there is still much room for further improvement. Firstly, its size is relatively small — the largest aircraft carrier in the world now has a displacement of 112,000 metric tons. Meanwhile, unlike nuclear-powered U.S. Nimitz-class and Gerald Ford-class carriers, the Chinese vessel still uses conventional propulsion systems, which means that it must carry large amounts of fuel for long voyages. Moreover, on-board fighter jets still have to resort to traditional ski-jump ramps instead of the more advanced catapult-assisted takeoff facilities used by some Western ships.

As a peace-loving country, China has no intention of challenging other countries, and its vessels are mainly for national security and defensive purposes. China’s military budget is only 1.28 percent of its GDP, which is lower than that of the United States, Russia, India and many other countries in the world. And only 10 percent of China’s military budget is spent on the Navy.

Regardless of their size and combat capability, two aircraft carriers are really not enough for a big country like China. According to Chen Zhou, major general of the PLA Academy of Military Science, the second carrier is surely not the end of China’s aircraft carrier program. To safeguard its national interests, China needs at least three aircraft carriers, one for combat patrol and one for military training and research, while the third is under regular maintenance. The United States now boasts 11 such vessels. Six of them are deployed in the Pacific and the five others in the Atlantic.

Last but not least, while intensifying its research on developing new aircraft carriers, China should learn from successful models to build larger and more sophisticated carriers with steam or magnetic catapult systems and nuclear propulsion systems in the near future.

(Written by Winton Dong, editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Daily.)


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