The Shandong carrier was commissioned into PLAN service on December 17, 2019

On December 17 last year China commissioned its second aircraft carrier into service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in a ceremony at Yulin naval base at Sanya. The base is on Hainan island at China's southernmost point. Previously known in the West during its development as the “Type 001A,” the carrier became the “Type 002” on commissioning and officially received the long-rumoured name of Shandong and deck number 17. It is the first carrier to be built completely in China.

Although the carrier is still some way from operational capability, the formal ceremony—which was presided over by China's President Xi Jinping—underlines the ever-growing ambitions of China to challenge the U.S. Navy for dominance of the Western Pacific seas. Soon after its commissioning, Shandong sailed through the Taiwan Strait in a thinly veiled political message to Taipei ahead of elections. The vessel is China’s second carrier, and a third, larger vessel is advancing in its construction.

Shandong was launched on April 26, 2017, and was completed a year later, embarking on its first sea trial in May, albeit without any arrester gear. On its third at-sea testing period in September, the carrier conducted aircraft operations with Shenyang J-15 fighters and helicopters. In the following month, the J-15D electronic warfare version of the carrier-borne “Flanker” derivative operated from the carrier.

In terms of design, the Type 002 draws on that of the PLAN’s first carrier, the short take-off, barrier-arrested recovery (STOBAR) Type 001 Liaoning (deck number 16). This vessel was produced by completing the hulk of the former Russian Kuznetsov-class carrier Varyag, which was bought from Ukraine in 1998. It features a ski-jump for short take-off fighters. It was commissioned on September 25, 2012, but did not become combat-ready until 2016, embarking J-15s as its only fixed-wing equipment. It was mainly intended to be a training and evaluation tool, providing carrier experience to the PLAN and paving the way for more ambitious developments.

Also constructed by the Dalian shipyard, Shandong shares a similar configuration to Liaoning, including oil-fired boilers that drive eight steam turbines and which were derived from the Liaoning’s Soviet-designed power plant. However, while having a similar displacement of around 55,000 tonnes in standard load and around 70,000 tonnes in full load, Shandong has an enlarged flight deck and smaller island, increasing the area available for aircraft manoeuvring.

Moreover, the hangar area is increased so that Shandong can embark 44 aircraft and helicopters, compared with Liaoning’s 36. A typical air wing could comprise up to 32 J-15s (including J-15Ds), Changhe Z-18 helicopters for airborne early warning (AEW) and anti-submarine warfare, and Harbin Z-19 rescue/utility helicopters. Other changes from Liaoning include Shandong’s ski jump being angled at 12 degrees rather than 14, and the revised island mounts four AESA arrays for the Type 346A S-band surveillance radar.

China’s third carrier, the Type 003, is under construction at the Jiangnan shipyard. Larger than the earlier vessels, at 85,000 tonnes, the carrier features a CATOBAR (catapult-assisted take-off, barrier arrested landing) configuration. It has long been believed that the Type 003 will be fitted with an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) in place of traditional steam catapults, but trials have reportedly encountered difficulties.

Shenyang J-15s outfitted for catapult trials from a shore-based dummy deck with nosewheel attachment gear were seen in 2016. The CATOBAR arrangement also permits the launch of heavier aircraft for support roles, perhaps including a new AEW aircraft. The Xian KJ-600 design, similar in appearance to the U.S. Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye, is believed to be under development for service aboard the Type 003 and subsequent carriers. A mock-up was seen on a concrete replica deck in Wuhan in 2017.

The PLAN Air Force is reportedly unhappy with the J-15 and is expected to field a new fighter type aboard the carriers beyond Shandong. A candidate is a version of the fifth-generation Shenyang FC-31 Mighty Dragon, which currently is offered for export with no announced domestic customer. A slightly enlarged version, provisionally designated J-35, is seen as the front-runner to populate PLAN carrier decks.

Little is known of the Type 004 carrier that is apparently in the early stages of construction at the Dalian yard. It has been suggested that this will be nuclear-powered, but it may also be a conventionally-powered vessel similar to Type 003. In any case, China has embarked on a mission to equip its navy with a powerful fleet of carriers that will significantly alter the balance of power in the region.