China’s Aircraft Carrier Program
Commodore Gopal Suri, Senior Fellow, VIF

China’s Naval Ambitions

China’s aircraft carrier program has made significant progress with the country ready to launch its first indigenous aircraft carrier in the near future. China acquired its first aircraft carrier, the decommissioned Soviet ship Varyag, from Ukraine in 1998. The ship was repaired and refitted in Dalian after which it was commissioned into the People’s Liberation Army Nay (PLAN) in 2012 as the Liaoning. The ship has subsequently been operationalized with the J-15 aircraft, which have been flying from it in the past four years. The entry of aircraft carriers into the PLAN heralds a new era in its operational capability, which is also in consonance with the growing maritime ambitions of China. Aircraft carriers are very visible platforms which distinctly project the maritime power of a country. China’s aircraft carrier program therefore deserves closer scrutiny considering its recent aggressive approach in the international arena, especially in the maritime domain. This article will attempt to glean an understanding of this critical program with a view to defining the possible deployment of aircraft carriers in implementation of Chinese maritime strategy.

Chinese Maritime Strategy

China’s White Paper on Military Strategy published in May 2015 paints a peaceful international situation which ‘is witnessing historic changes in the balance of power’1. The paper also asserts China’s right to protect its territorial integrity and its maritime interests. It talks about the maritime disputes that it has with its neighbours and the necessity of safeguarding its maritime interests. The paper also lists out its issues with Taiwan, the Korean peninsula, Japan and Northeast Asia, while security of its overseas energy interests and resources, strategic sea lines of communication (SLOCs), and institutions, personnel and assets abroad, find special mention. These factors dictate the tasks of the Chinese Navy and guide its growth as it shifts its focus from "offshore waters defense" to the combination of "offshore waters defense with open seas protection”. The concept of ‘offshore waters defence’ had its origins in the erstwhile Coastal Waters Defence Naval Strategy propounded by the father the modern Chinese Navy, Admiral Liu Huaqing2. Coastal Waters were defined as the regions of the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, the South China Sea, the Spratlys and Taiwan, the seas around Okinawa, as well as the Northern region of the Pacific Ocean. All those outside these waters were referred to as the "medium and far seas".

This shift to open seas indicates Chinese intentions to focus on waters beyond China’s immediate littoral and look at the medium and far seas. China realizes the importance of protecting its maritime interests and its vital dependencies, primarily its lines of supply of energy and resources which lie beyond the immediate littoral in the far reaches of the Indian Ocean and the West coast of Africa. The expanding Chinese economy and its excess industrial capacity is also leading Chinese businesses to invest heavily in Africa and Asia, which is crucial to the country’s national economic growth. This has also given impetus to China’s ambitions of developing into a maritime power. Consequently, the PLAN has embarked on an acquisition program to generate capabilities in line with these ambitions. The aircraft carrier program fits in with these ambitions it being a very visible means of projecting power in the regions of China’s interest, apart from undertaking other tasks which will be discussed later in this paper. This phenomenon is clearly embodied in the words of Admiral Liu Huaqing who said3 :-

“Aircraft carriers symbolize a country’s overall strength. They are also the core of the navy’s combined-arms sea operations. Building carriers has all along been a matter of concern for the Chinese people. To modernize our national defense and build a perfect weaponry and equipment system, we have to consider the development of carriers”.

China’s Aircraft Carrier Program

The Liaoning. China purchased the unfinished Soviet Kuznetsov- class aircraft carrier Varyag, from Ukraine, in 1998. The ship underwent an extensive refit with major modifications from 2004 till 2012 when it was commissioned into the PLAN under the name of Liaoninig. The refit included the fitment of a ski jump which allowed it to launch its indigenous aircraft, the J-15. This massive venture was possible only because of the detailed construction drawings provided by the Nikolayev Yard in Ukraine4. These designs have also been instrumental in helping China for the development of its indigenous aircraft carrier. The Liaoning displaces about 65,000 tons and has a length of more than 300 metres. It is likely to have a complement of about 36 aircraft comprising 24 J-15 fighters, 6 anti-submarine warfare helicopters, 4 airborne early warning helicopters, and 2 rescue helicopters. The ship can stay at sea for about 45 days and is propelled by four steam turbines. It is equipped with a close-in weapon systems and short range missiles for its protection. The J 15 aircraft is its main weapon which is modelled on the Russian Su 33 Flanker aircraft. The carrier is expected to have a complement of 24 of these aircraft which are intended for air defense as also strike. The Liaoning is home-ported at Qingdao, the home of the North Sea Fleet where dedicated berthing and support facilities have been created for the ship5.

Future Carriers. The Liaoning is a forerunner of more such ships in the PLAN. It is reported that the Chinese are planning to induct three, if not four, carriers into the PLAN. Chinese state media recently released images of the indigenous carrier, designated as Type 001A, under construction in Dalian Shipyard in Eastern China. It is quite likely that this carrier will be similar to the Liaoning, especially when considering the development period of less than ten years and the availability of the blueprints which came along with the Varyag, infancy of carrier operations in the PLAN being another factor. The photographs show a ski jump and a smaller island than that of the Liaoning. The Type 001A is unlikely to be commencing trials before 2018, thus indicating an operationalization date of about 2020. The new carrier will have a displacement of 50,000 metric tons, a conventional power plant, and will carry domestically developed J-15 fighter jets and other ship-borne aircraft, which will use a ski jump mode for launch, the same as the Liaoning - according to Defense Ministry spokesman Senior Colonel Yang Yujun6. Senior Captain Zhang Junshe of the People's Liberation Army Naval Military Studies Research Institute says that this carrier will have ‘different missions than those for the Liaoning’7. This indicates that the ship will not serve as a trials platform since the Liaoning would have completed all the required trials for operationalizing this capability. It is also quite likely that this ship will have a host of indigenous technology including propulsion and combat systems. Development of this ship will represent the next stage in the design process for China from where it can make larger carriers to fulfil its global maritime ambitions. According to Li Jie, a researcher at the Naval Military Studies Research Institute, China will need three carriers to meet the requirements of the PLAN, so that ‘one would able to carry out operational missions because one would be used for training, while the third would have to undergo maintenance’8. Li Jie also says that it will be impossible for China to complete the construction of three carriers by 2020 based on current shipbuilding capabilities. This is a pragmatic assessment since the Type 001A is the first indigenous Chinese carrier and there is the need to incorporate the lessons learnt during its construction. Reports have also emerged of modifications being made to China's land-based mock-up aircraft carrier in Wuhan, Hubei Province9. Satellite imagery of the Huangdicun Airbase, which supports China's J-15 carrier-based aircraft, reveals that construction of facilities, assessed to be ‘catapults’, commenced in 2015, which is a possible indication that future Chinese carriers could have a configuration for ‘catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery’ (CATOBAR) operations. However, there has been no official confirmation of the construction of the third carrier. The availability of a catapult on the future carrier will permit employment of heavier aircraft which in itself is an indication of a possibly larger future carrier. It remains to be seen whether China will employ a steam assisted catapult or the Electro-Magnetic Launch system that the US is planning to fit on its next generation of carriers.

Aircraft. The J-15 ‘Flying Shark’ is the primary fighter on board the Chinese carrier and has been developed by the AVIC Shenyang Aircraft Industry (Group) Co. Ltd. The Chinese claim that it is an indigenously developed aircraft while some critics say that it is a derivative of the Su 33 Flanker. Whatever may be the case, the Chinese have produced a fairly potent fighter which compares favorably with most of the heavy carrier-borne fighters in service in the world. The aircraft is in the 28 tons category with a range of about 2000 miles. It is equipped with 30 mm machine guns and can carry YJ-62 long-range anti-ship missile, PL-8/9 short-range air-to-air missile, PL-12 active radar homing long-range air-to-air missile, and "Thunder Stone" series of gliding guided bombs10. In an interview with the official Xinhua news agency, the designer of the aircraft, Sun Cong, stated that the engine’s fuel consumption places restrictions on the combat radius, currently about 1000 miles (1600 km) 11. Coupled with the fact that the ski jump also places restrictions on the aircraft fuel and ordnance loads, the operating radius of the aircraft will be more likely in the range of about 700 – 800 miles. This restriction also implies a reduced weapon load, which in turn will place curbs on its combat employment. Problems have also been reported on the ejection seats and the flight system as also the landing gear. However, these are teething problems which are to be expected from a newly inducted aircraft, especially an indigenously developed one. Latest reports from Chinese media indicate that production of the aircraft is progressing according to schedule and the Liaoning may soon have its full complement of 24 J-15 aircraft12. China's state television showed footage on 01 August of the Liaoning carrying eight J-15 fighters as well as a Z-18 and a Z-9 helicopter on its deck. China has developed the Changhe Z-18 J airborne early warning (AEW) and Z-18F anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters which will be part of the full air wing for the carrier. Meanwhile, China has also been flight testing a new variant of the J-15, modified for CATOBAR operations, according to images posted on Chinese online fora. Released on 15 Sep 16, the images show a J-15 in flight, featuring what appear to be modifications to its front undercarriage that would enable the aircraft to conduct catapult-assisted take-offs. This is yet another indication that China may be planning to develop a CATOBAR aircraft carrier. Notwithstanding these developments, the current size of the Liaoning’s air wing with 24 fighters will allow the PLAN to carry out a number of missions like air defence, limited shore strike, long range anti-shipping strikes, sustained HADR, etc. The induction of the CATOBAR carrier will provide further potency, while larger carriers, on the lines of the US, could bring true expeditionary capability to the PLAN.

Current Status

Operations of Liaoning. The Liaoning has been carrying out extensive flight operations for the last four years and is readying to be part of the Chinese fleet. The carrier has also been deployed with the South Sea Fleet in the contentious South China Sea and appears to be sailing extensively for ship as also aircraft trials, according to Chinese Defence Ministry spokespersons. Chinese media has also reported completion of the training of about 40 carrier based pilots, which is a fairly large number, considering that the aircraft started operating from the carrier only in November 2012. It is obvious that the PLAN has developed a very robust support and logistic framework to ensure sustained availability of the Liaoning. The ability of the PLAN to sustain such high levels of operational availability of an aircraft carrier, despite absence of previous experience, reflects the importance accorded to development of this capability, by not only the PLAN, but also the national leadership. The Liaoning will, in all likelihood, continue with trials, both of the ship as also the aircraft, for a few more years to generate the knowledge required for combat employment of this capability. It is important to note that such capability can only be generated after gaining considerable operational experience, of nearly a decade. This is, however, unlikely to restrict its employment for other missions in the intervening period, especially for low intensity situations in the SCS, and for projecting presence overseas.

Flying Operations. Reports in the Chinese media indicate that the Liaoning is carrying out ‘dozens’ of aircraft sorties in a day, which is way more than the 2 – 4 sorties it generated in 201213. The carrier currently embarks about 18 aircraft, if the Chinese media is to be believed, with a possible completion of its full complement of 24 aircraft by the end of 2016. The commissioning Commanding Officer is also reported to have been promoted and transferred to a staff appointment after 44 months on board indicating that the ship has achieved some level of operational capability, possibly the Initial Operational Capability (IOC). According to Senior Captain Dai Mingmeng, commander of the PLA Navy's carrier-based aviation force, “It will not take long for us to attain full operational capability on the aircraft carrier” 14. Full operational capability does not necessarily imply combat capability which requires extensive operational flying experience. An experienced navy like the Royal Navy was also not fully ready for combat operations prior to the Falkland campaign and needed to hone its skills with the new equipment15. The PLAN fighter unit has also had a casualty when one of the pilots died in Apr 16 during an ejection, necessitated by a flight system malfunction, while landing at the air base. Apparently, the aviation wing now has about 40 pilots with two dozen having been trained in the first five batches. The last batch which qualified in Aug 16 had 16 pilots indicating a very high level of aircraft availability and sortie generation rate for the carrier. This unit also took part in a combined fleet exercise involving all three Chinese fleets in early Aug 16 indicating that integration of carrier based aviation into fleet operations is well underway. Generating the required combat capability from the CBG will however take time and will require further such concerted operational deployments.

Ships of the Carrier Battle Group (CBG). The PLAN is progressing rapidly with the construction of auxiliary support and replenishment ships for the aircraft carriers. The second of the Daguan class auxiliary ships, which are intended to provide accommodation to personnel and other support, is at an advanced stage of construction. The first ship Xu Xiake, was commissioned in 2011 and has accompanied the Liaoning in all her sea trials. Progress on the Type 901 large combat support ship, designed to provide underway logistics support to the carriers and their accompanying escorts, is also at an advanced stage of construction, after its launch in Dec 1516. Meanwhile the PLAN continues its induction programme for destroyers and frigates with Luyang III-class (Type 052D) destroyer, Yinquan, joining the South Sea Fleet on 12 Jul 16 at the Yalong Bay base on Hainan Island17. The country also plans to ramp up the construction of large guided missile destroyers, intended for carrier protection, in the years to come with talk of a 10,000 ton ship in the plans, according to Cao Weidong, a Chinese military expert18. The carrier has been seen sailing with about 4 – 5 ships, in photographs released by Chinese state media. Additionally, the new Type 093B Shang class SSNs could also be employed for fleet support operations in an ASW role. With the continued induction of new ships, the PLAN is developing a comprehensive CBG for effective deployment in the regions of its interest.

Basing of the Liaoning. The Liaoning has been home-ported at the Qingdao naval base, an all-weather ice-free port, on the Shandong peninsula which is also home to the North Sea Fleet whose area of responsibility (AOR) covers the seas surrounding Japan and Korean peninsula. The port has a maximum depth of more than 20 metres and a channel that is several hundred metres wide. It also houses logistic and weapon facilities like missile storehouses, chemical storehouses and armouries. The aircraft carrier has also operated from the Sanya naval base on Hainan island but that would have more likely been a replenishment or turnaround berthing. Aircraft carriers require specialized support at their home ports for normal operational maintenance and it is quite likely that China will develop more such facilities to facilitate operations in other areas like the South China Sea.

Deployment of the Aircraft Carrier in the PLAN

Role. Operations of the Liaoning and its air wing herald the arrival of air power into the PLAN’s operations at sea. Hitherto, air power in the PLAN was restricted to the reach of shore based aircraft which fulfilled the need of coastal and offshore defense in accordance with existent maritime strategic needs. Carrier based air power will now enable the PLAN to deliver effectively on its mandate of ‘offshore waters defense with open seas protection’. The carrier’s air wing of J-15 fighters and ship borne helicopters will bring organic air power to fleet operations in blue waters well away from the Chinese coast. However, the current size of the Liaoning’s air wing, as also that of the Type 001A, and the payload restrictions imposed by the ski-jump inhibit the capability to deliver effective air strikes, especially on enemy coasts away from the immediate littoral. The growing support fleet for the carrier will ensure sustained operations at sea without returning to port enabling conduct of new missions hitherto beyond the reach of the PLAN. While Chinese analysts prefer to talk of the Liaoning as a training carrier, its combat employment cannot be ruled out. No country can afford to employ such a valuable asset purely for training. Training will remain a primary job of the Liaoning in the near future since it will need to generate operating procedures and doctrine for development of air operations in the PLAN. However, the PLAN will definitely utilize the carrier for combat and other missions, if and when the need arises. This is clearly evident in statements made by China’s senior leadership like Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, who served as a national political adviser and sits on the navy’s advisory board on cyber security, when he told the state-run Xinhua News Agency that building aircraft carriers served to “defend China’s sovereignty of the islands and reefs, maritime rights and overseas ­interests” 19. Considering the current geo-political situation and the aggressive stance adopted by China in the recent past, especially in the maritime space, a look into the likely role of the carrier, notwithstanding its versatility for any role, may be in order to assess the PLAN’s future intentions for employing this newly acquired capability.

Fleet Air Defence. The air defence of the fleet will be greatly extended in terms of both range and duration with the Airborne Early Warning (AEW) helicopters aiding early detection of threats and the J-15 fighters providing the Combat Air Patrol (CAP). The ability to maintain round the clock surveillance will be restricted considering the number of aircraft carried by the Liaoning but can be augmented by helicopter carrying ships in the rest of the CBG. Consequently, this will allow the Fleet to venture into threat prone areas with an increased degree of protection to execute its tasks. Operating against shore based air threats, especially in regions beyond the immediate littoral, will however, continue to remain a challenge because of the availability of limited air assets, whether for surveillance or air defence. Consequently undertaking ‘out of area operations’ against a strong adversary may be out of reach of the PLAN’s current ambit of operations. Translated into current geo-political scenarios, the Chinese CBG can undertake sorties into contested areas like the Senkakus’ with a high degree of impunity. However, the Liaoning CBG has, as yet, not been reported in these areas, though it has operated in the South China Sea, where the air threat is minimal.

Landing Operations. A CBG can provide sustained air power for amphibious operations as has been witnessed in past wars, most famously the Falklands campaign of the Royal Navy. China is involved in a number of maritime territorial disputes including so-called islands in the South China Sea where it has utilized force in the recent past to oust claimant states. Consequently landing operations figure prominently in the PLAN’s Order of Battle (ORBAT) as also in its exercises. The construction of large amphibious ships by the PLAN also indicates that this is a field of maritime warfare that China may adopt in these conflicts. Recently concluded exercises with the Russian Navy also featured ‘island seizing’ drills. The CBG will prove to be an invaluable asset for undertaking such operations as it can overcome most threats from any of the other claimant states. Moreover, the command and control as also the ability of the CBG to provide logistic support will be decisive in such an operation. However, employing this CBG in operations far from the Chinese mainland in any out-of-area-contingency against a well-equipped and capable enemy may not serve the purpose considering the limited number of aircraft available with the Liaoning or the Type 001A. Such expeditionary operations can possibly be undertaken only after the arrival of a larger CATOBAR carrier, in conjunction with other CBGs.

Sea Control. Access to and from the Chinese mainland can be restricted by an adversary controlling the approaches through the so-called ‘First Island Chain’. Contending with such a threat and ensuring unimpeded access for Chinese shipping will require the PLAN to achieve limited sea control, in time and space, in such areas. The CBG with its host of assets fits the bill for such a task. The organic air power of the Chinese CBG can effectively interdict threats in the air and surface dimensions while the ASW ships and helicopters can keep submarines at bay. The CBG will therefore fit in well with China’s ‘Anti-Access - Area Denial’ (A2AD) strategy of denying access to the homeland utilizing submarines, space based reconnaissance satellites, shore based long range HF radars and Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM).

Offensive Strikes. The Liaoning and Type 001A will be hampered by restrictions, imposed by the ski-jump, on the payload of the J-15 and its follow-on’s till the arrival of the CATOBAR carrier. The CATOBAR carrier will also permit employment of fixed wing AEW which will greatly enhance operational effectiveness in hostile environments. The current capability of the PLAN to undertake offensive strike on distant enemy shores will therefore remain limited in the near future. This, however, does not imply that such strikes cannot be carried out. Such strikes can be planned in consonance with land attack missile-equipped submarines and ships to cause targeted damage to specific targets. However, strikes on the scale carried out by NATO and American aircraft from carriers as witnessed in Libya, Kosovo, and Iraq will not be possible. Moreover, the air capability of the adversary will remain a major factor in determining the feasibility of such strikes for the reasons mentioned earlier. Employment of the Liaoning and the next carrier for such a role is likely to be limited to the Western Pacific and the South China Sea since shore based air power can augment the carrier based strikes for such requirements in these areas. Deployments for expeditionary warfare beyond these regions are unlikely till the induction of a larger carrier, which could then bring to bear effective fire power on an enemy coast.

Protection of SLOCs. China is hugely dependent on seaborne trade for its energy and mineral demands. Most of this trade comes through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. China is acutely aware of the susceptibility of these SLOCs to disruption by adversaries and has talked about the ‘Malacca Dilemma’, arising out of its perception of Indian and American actions. The CBG provides sufficient firepower and protection against such threats, especially in an inimical neighbourhood, albeit for a short time. Such a role clearly is also in line with the mandate of ‘open seas protection’. The PLAN’s continued operations in various oceans of the world are likely to serve as a springboard for the Liaoning to step out beyond the Chinese coast and undertake symbolic operations of this nature in adjacent regions like the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This will not only showcase the out-of-area capability of the PLAN but will signal Chinese intentions to the world at large.

HADR and Evacuation Operations. China has utilized the PLAN for evacuation of tis citizens from Libya and Yemen in the past. While an aircraft carrier does not greatly enhance such capability, it does increase the capacity by providing a platform for increased air sorties and medical support in such situations. Moreover, temporary additional provisions can also be made to enhance such capabilities for these contingencies.

Power Projection. The aircraft carrier, by its very size and multi- dimensional combat capability, is a powerful representative of a country. The Chinese will therefore not be averse to such usage, especially in the context of Admiral Liu Huaqing’s views of the carrier as a symbol of ‘a country’s overall strength’. The current geo-political scenario, where China is jockeying with the US for titling the balance of power in the Western Pacific, lends itself ideally to employment of the Liaoning and its successors for such missions.


The aircraft carrier is an inherently flexible platform which has been used in the most unlikely of situations in the history of naval warfare. China is taking baby steps in this field whose strides are growing rapidly, as witnessed by the pace of operationalisation of the Liaoning. The range of missions and the roles assigned to Liaoning and the future carriers will expand as the PLAN gains more experience in their operations in the near future. The PLAN is ‘learning the ropes’ rather quickly and it remains to be seen as to how it will utilize this potent capability in prickly situations that it is likely to face in its neighbourhood and beyond.


  1. China’s Military Strategy, The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China. May 2015, Beijing.
  2. Admiral Liu Huaqing, Memoirs of Liu Huaqing. Beijing. PLA Press, August 2004
  3. Ibid.
  4. Xu Zengping: Buy "Varyag" In Shandong. China Network time: 2014-05-19, Editor: Hu Rui. Accessed on 15 Sep 16
  5. ‘China Gives Rare Glimpse into First Aircraft Carrier Liaoning’s Home Port in Shandong’. Published: 04 December, 2014, Nectar Gan. Accessed on 15 Sep 15.
  6. Defense Ministry's Regular Press Conference on 31 Dec 15. Accessed on 16 Sep 16.
  7. 'Second Aircraft Carrier to Have Military Focus'. China Daily, 04 Jan 2016.
  8. ‘China Needs Three Aircraft Carriers, Writes Naval Researcher’. 21 January, 2014. Minnie Chan. Accessed on 15 Sep 16
  9. ‘China's third aircraft carrier likely to be fitted with catapults’. Andrew Tate, London - IHS Jane's Defence Weekly, 04 August 2016.
  10. J-15 better than U.S. F/A-18 in terms of air action, slightly inferior in terms of attack against sea targets’. People's Daily Online, 10 Sep 2013. Accessed on 15 Sep 16.
  11. J-31 may become China's next generation carrier-borne fighter jet’. Source: Published: 2013-3-6. Accessed on 15 Sep 16.
  12. ‘Liaoning Ship F-15 Or The Number Of Aircraft Carrier Battle Groups To 24 Has Basically Formed’. Sina military Weibo, August 23 2016. Accessed
  13. Liaoning Ship Voyage’, 21 May 16. Sina Military Weibo. Accessed on 14 Sep 16.
  14. ‘Carrier-Based Air Unit Set To Patrol Ocean Spaces’. Source: China Daily Editor: Huang Panyue
    2016-08-03. Accessed on 08 Aug 16
  15. Read ‘Sea Harrier Over The Falklands: A Maverick at War’, by Commander Sharkey Ward, Cassell Military Paperbacks, March 2007.
  16. ‘ China Continues To Invest In Carrier Support Capabilities’, Andrew Tate, London - IHS Jane's Defence Weekly. 25 August 2016.
  17. ‘Fourth Type 052D Destroyer Joins China's South Sea Fleet’, Andrew Tate, London - IHS Jane's Defence Weekly. 14 July 2016.
  18. ‘Delivery Of China's New 052D Destroyers To Begin Soon, Military Expert Says’. Yuan Can. People's Daily Online, 04 July 16.
    Accessed on 06 Jul 16
  19. ‘China Plans Aircraft Carrier Battle Groups to Protect Offshore Interests’. 03 Mar 2016. The South China Sea Morning Post.

Published Date: 5th October 2016.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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