China's first home-built carrier ready for launch
Advances in Beijing's military tech will speed fleet development
TOKYO -- China's first domestically built aircraft carrier will soon launch at Dalian for drills and trial voyages, putting to the test proprietary technology meant to further Beijing's expansion in the South and East China seas.
A dock at a shipyard in the Liaoning Province city was apparently filled with water Sunday in preparation for the launch. The Chinese-made vessel is expected to enter service around 2020, joining China's first aircraft carrier, a refurbished Ukrainian vessel known as the Liaoning. The new ship, like its predecessor, will be conventionally propelled, as opposed to nuclear-powered, and feature a sloped flight deck known as a ski jump for aircraft takeoff. It is somewhat smaller than the Liaoning, with a displacement of around 50,000 tons compared to around 67,000 tons.
Chinese media report the new vessel is designed to have more space for aircraft than the Liaoning, by some estimates letting the ship hold as many as 36 fighter jets, or 50% more than its predecessor. While the new carrier "differs little from the Liaoning as far as outward appearances go, its operational capabilities are vastly superior," Chinese military expert Liang Fang told state-run China Central Television.
The new vessel is expected to operate mainly in the South China Sea alongside the Liaoning, which in December held its second set of exercises in those contested waters since entering service. Adding another ship would enable an aircraft carrier to remain present there while the other is in for maintenance. This arrangement, combined with ports and airstrips China has built on man-made islands in the sea, aims to give Beijing aerial supremacy over a region it considers central to its national interest and to curtail U.S. activity there.
Future aircraft carriers are likely to be built faster now that China has amassed the design experience and technology to bring the first vessel to launch. Work on a second Chinese-made carrier has already begun. The vessel probably will employ a steam catapult to launch aircraft, retired Maj. Gen. Xu Guangyu told Chinese media. The third vessel is expected to use nuclear propulsion, eliminating the need to resupply fuel. Work on escort vessels and submarines for a carrier strike group is also underway.
Around 200 visitors and reporters gathered in Dalian on Sunday, expecting a launch ceremony to coincide with the anniversary of the Chinese navy's founding. No official announcement regarding a launch was made that day.