OMINOUS WEAPON: China’s 70,000-ton monster unleashed

BEIJING has come a long way since it first landed a jet fighter aboard what was originally HMAS Melbourne in 1987

BEIJING has come a long way since it first landed a jet fighter aboard what was originally HMAS Melbourne in 1987

The former Australian aircraft carrier had been sold for scrap. But it proved a source of valuable technical intelligence for an ambitious Chinese military. China surprised the world again with the unveiling of its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, in 2012. It had been bought from Ukraine in 1998. It was supposed to have been turned into a casino. Instead, it emerged as a fully armed and operational warship. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been experimenting with it ever since, developing a feel for the strengths and weaknesses of carrier warfare.

Meanwhile, it’s been busy building another.

Meanwhile, it’s been busy building another.

Today, tugboats have been seen moving the ship from its wharf in preparation for its first independently powered foray at sea. This ship, so far known only as Type 001A (CV-17), is a reverse-engineered and somewhat modified version of the Soviet-built Liaoning. Its hull was launched at the Dalian Shipyard in April last year. It’s since been undergoing fit-out. It has also been subject to a series of harbourside tests and trials. The ship is believed to be headed towards a designated testing zone in the Bohai Sea.



It’s an event that has military analysts in Japan, all of South East Asia, India, the United States — and Australia — sitting up and taking notice.

It’s an event that has military analysts in Japan, all of South East Asia, India, the United States — and Australia — sitting up and taking notice.

It means China now has two armed and operational aircraft carriers capable of projecting firepower far beyond its borders. It’s an event that further changes the balance of power in its favour. Meanwhile, Beijing’s building two more. Work on aircraft carrier Type 002 resumed in May last year. It’s also believed first metal was cut for the construction of Type 003 in December.

TYPE 001A (CV-17)

TYPE 001A (CV-17)

International observers had been keenly examining photographs and satellite images of China’s first home-built aircraft carrier as it was being assembled. Everything about the ship was a tightly held secret. We don’t know when work began on the project. We don’t know when the design was finalised. We didn’t know when construction began. We still don’t know the ship’s name. But, during the recent Communist Party Two Sessions gathering which installed Xi Jinping as President-for-life, Yuan Maorong, an NPC deputy from East China’s Zhejiang Province, suggested naming the carrier “Wei Wen”, after a military general from the Three Kingdoms period (AD 184/220-280) who landed on the island of Taiwan.



But, under the bonnet, things are likely to be very different.

But, under the bonnet, things are likely to be very different.

First, it’s slightly larger at about 70,000 tons. This may represent extra bunkerage for fuel oil and aviation stores. It’s expected to carry about eight more aircraft than Liaoning, bringing its total to 44. Type 001A’s air wing will include between 24 and 32 J-15 multi-role fighters, six anti-submarine helicopters, four early-warning helicopters and two transport helicopters. The flight deck is somewhat broader over more of its length, reflecting experience from flight operations aboard Liaoning.

Helping the carrier in the task is a purpose-built liner-like trials ship, intended to house engineers, crew and experts taking part in the trials program.

Helping the carrier in the task is a purpose-built liner-like trials ship, intended to house engineers, crew and experts taking part in the trials program.

Named Xu Xiake, the support ship tied up alongside Type 001A in late January, heightening speculation the aircraft carrier was about to go to sea. The English mouthpiece of state-run news service the People’s Daily, Global Times reported in January the ship was due to leave its dock for the first time shortly after the Lunar New Year holiday. It was an expectation reinforced by state-run news service Xinhua. It said the new carrier was “ready to go” after just a few more finishing touches.



China is confident all will go well.

China is confident all will go well.

“All the equipment and devices on the carrier are in the joint debugging stage, and the main engine has been powered ... In 2018, we will present a surprise to the Chinese people,” Chairman of the Dailian Shipbuilding Industry Company Liu Zheng has reportedly said. Despite her upgraded design, Type 001A still has some significant deficiencies in comparison to US aircraft carriers. First, it’s conventually powered. While the new carrier is reputed to be capable of travelling 25,000km at 14 knots, it’s not the indefinite period offered by a nuclear powerplant.

TYPE 002

TYPE 002

Exactly when work began on China’s third aircraft carrier is uncertain. Construction seems to have begun in February 2016, though this was may have been suspended while challenges involving new catapult technology were addressed. Work appears to have resumed in March last year, with its launch now scheduled for 2021 and operational service in 2024. Type 002 (designated two as it is the second aircraft carrier to be built by China) is said to be very similar to Type 001A at a fundamental level. But it is believed to do away with the distinctive ‘ski ramp’ at the bow. Instead Chinese media boasts the vessels will have ultra-modern electromagnetic catapults.