The growth of China’s navy and the introduction of Lockheed Martin’s short takeoff and vertical landing F-35B Lightning II have helped spur the acquisition of aircraft carriers in the Asia-Pacific. Those countries that cannot afford full-size aircraft carriers and their expensive jets are increasingly turning to landing helicopter docks to provide some of the benefits of an aircraft carrier, but at a more manageable cost.
China’s military ambitions are seeing profound impacts on the size and shape of its navy, as well as those of its neighbours, and countries in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. By 2021 the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) had become the largest in the world, with more than 350 platforms compared to the 290 of the US Navy. By 2030, China will have 425 vessels in its fleet. As the fleet has grown, so has the PLAN’s reach, with recent deployments as far as Alaska, and provocative deployments closer to home – the carrier Liaoning has sailed repeatedly through the Taiwan Strait.
The jewels in the PLAN crown are its aircraft carriers, with two in service and the third planned to join the fleet in 2023 and become operational in 2024. The latest Type 003 will have a straight, flat deck and three electromagnetic catapult launch systems, allowing it to operate a whole new range of aircraft, including fighters, fixed-wing airborne early warning aircraft and helicopters. Construction of the Type 003 began in March 2017 at the Jiangnan Changxingdao Shipyard in Shanghai.
Around 40 aircraft are expected to be carried on the 80,000 tonne carrier. Development continues of the fifth-generation Shenyang FC-31/J-31 multi-role fighter — last year an FC-31 was seen with a launch bar in front of the landing gear, amongst several other changes. Images have also emerged of the first catapult-capable version of Shenyang’s J-15 carrier-borne fighter.
The J-15 is the main aerial asset aboard China’s second aircraft carrier, the Shandong, which has been in service for more than two years. Commissioned in December 2019, this Type 002 vessel is around 305 metres long and based on the Soviet Varyag but with numerous improvements. It carries around 30 J-15 fighters along with half a dozen Harbin Z-9 and Changhe Z-18 helicopters.
The PLAN’s first carrier is the Liaoning (the ex-Soviet Varyag, acquired from Ukraine in 1998), which was commissioned into service in September 2012 as the Type 001 – it was declared combat ready in late 2016 and has been mainly used as a training vessel. The 305 metre long ship carries two dozen J-15 fighters, launched via a ski jump, meaning full combat loads cannot be carried by these aircraft.