Launched over two years ago, China’s first home-built aircraft carrier was put into service on Dec. 17 in a ceremony attended by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Sanya, on the southern island province of Hainan.
Christened Shandong, the vessel’s class is 002, a modified version of China’s first carrier, the Type 001 Liaoning. That ship is itself built from an uncompleted Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier, on which construction began in the former Soviet Union, but was never completed. China purchased the unfinished Kuznetsov from Ukraine.
Around 5,000 other guests, mostly military personnel, attended Shandong’s commissioning ceremony.
Shandong is assigned to the Southern Theater Command of the Chinese military. Operating from its home port of Sanya, its main area of service would be the South China Sea — a region fraught with border disputes. While several countries lay claim to parts of the waters there, China maintains that virtually the entire sea is under its sovereignty, in defiance of a 2016 ruling by the Hague. The Shandong would also likely serve in the event of military operations involving Taiwan.
Shandong was laid down in 2013 and took four years to complete, being launched on April 26, 2017. Following that, it underwent sea trials and additional outfitting. The ship displaces 70,000 tons at full load and carries three dozen J-15s, a naval fighter based on the Soviet Su-33 fourth-generation jets, as well as eight helicopters. Fixed-wing aircraft take off from the carrier via an angled ski jump at the vessel’s bow, rather than the steam catapults used in Western carrier designs. This has limited the takeoff weight of China’s naval aircraft.
All of China’s aircraft carriers have been conventionally powered, though the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has plans for nuclear carriers.
Compared with Liaoning, which was commissioned in 2012, the Shandong has more advanced electronic warfare systems and an optimized layout, allowing it to carry 36 planes compared to its predecessor’s 24.
Though Chinese state propaganda has devoted much attention to the PLA Navy’s two carriers as a symbol of China’s newfound strength as a global power, actually operating the ships has proved challenging, with a number of fatal crashes involving the J-15, as well as deficiencies inherent to the Kuznetsov-based design.
On Dec. 12, a major fire broke out on Admiral Kuznetsov, the original ship of the class and Russia’s only carrier, as it underwent maintenance work. One person died and 12 were injured in the blaze. The ship has been plagued with problems, particularly of its powerplant. When Admiral Kuznetsov sailed to the Mediterranean Sea to assist in Russia’s operations in the Syrian Civil War, it was seen spewing black smoke, and had to have a tugboat about it at all times in case of mechanical failure. The U.S. Sixth Fleet trailed the Russian carrier in case it sank, National Interest reported in 2013.
The Nikkei Asian Review quoted a diplomatic source in Beijing as saying that the Shandong “still does not have enough impact to upset the military balance between the U.S. and China in East Asia.”
“For the U.S., China’s Dongfeng-21D anti-ship ballistic missile and the Dongfeng-26, nicknamed the “Guam killer,” constitute a bigger threat than its fledgling carrier program. Yet Beijing has pushed ahead with the program to try to chip away at the U.S. lead in carriers,” Nikkei reported.
It remains to be seen whether China’s carrier program will be able to expand beyond its Soviet roots. Lack of funding as the Chinese economy slows, as well as other setbacks, have reportedly delayed further construction.