China will soon have three aircraft carriers, with CV-18 nearing completion. The new carrier features an EMALS (electromagnetic aircraft launch system) in a conventionally powered carrier with an engine modified to provide the large amount of electrical power needed to make its three EMALS catapults work. Satellite photos show CV-18 with three EMALS catapults under construction. CV-18 turned out to be larger than expected, in part because of the space needed for the IEP (integrated electric propulsion) system that supplied the power for EMALS. The only other carrier using EMALS is the American nuclear-powered USS Ford. China was more deliberate in designing their EMALS system and learned from the mistakes the Americans made. CV-18 appears to be the same length of the Ford and apparently displaces about 100,000 tons. CV-18 will be ready for sea-trials by the end of 2022 or early 2023,
China already has two carriers in service CV-16 and a similar CV-17 (the Shandong), which completed sea trials and entered service at the end of 2019, as it was seen moving past Taiwan. Back then it was assumed that China wanted to build two more similar carriers (CV-18 and 19) which would lose the ski jump deck and instead adopt a catapult. This was the case and CV-18 was already under construction in 2019, and in the water a year later. At that point it appeared that CV-18 would be in service by 2024.
It was believed that CV-18 might be delayed by the decision to use EMALS instead of steam catapults. The U.S. Navy has had problems getting its EMALS to work effectively and the Chinese were believed to be waiting to see how that works out before deciding. That was not the case as CV-18 was built with the IEP, which was only required if EMALS was used. What is unknown is if CV-19 will be similar to CV-18 or use nuclear-power. China has more problems with nuclear-powered surface ships than with EMALS. China has been working on nuclear propulsion for submarines for decades and encountered lots of technical problems that seriously limited the development of an effective Chinese nuclear submarine force. Chinese nuclear power experts informed the government that China did not yet have reliable nuclear power plants for surface ships and it would be a while before that technology was perfected.
Since carriers spend a lot of time in port getting upgrades and maintenance, you need three or more in order to guarantee having at least two available at all times for operations. China has already built or is building enough escort and support ships, along with air wings, to keep several carrier task forces, each built around one carrier, busy while one or more carriers were sidelined by months of maintenance and upgrades. China announced in 2020 that their first carrier, a rebuilt Russian carrier, would not remain a training carrier but would be equipped and manned with a crew that would enable it to also serve as a combat carrier.
There were some interesting official photos. In mid-2014 photos of a carrier model being displayed at an official event appeared on the Chinese Internet. The detailed model had the hull number 18 and the ship looked similar to an American CVN (a Nimitz class nuclear aircraft carrier). The Chinese CVN has four catapults and three elevators and much other evidence of being nuclear and very similar to the Nimitz class. This was an early Chinese Navy proposal for a CVN and that has apparently been refined to something that is similar to the Nimitz.
At one point it was believed that the first Chinese CVN would be more like the American USS Enterprise (CVN 65). This was the first American nuclear-powered carrier and it served as the prototype for the subsequent Nimitz class. The Enterprise was an expensive design, and only one was built, rather than the expected class of six. While a bit longer than the later Nimitz class, it was lighter (92,000 tons displacement, versus 100,000 tons). The Enterprise was commissioned in 1961, almost 40 years after the first U.S. carrier (the Langley) entered service in 1923. CVN 65 was active until 2012 and decommissioned in early 2017, two months before the second Chinese carrier was launched. China may end up going that way before building their first nuclear carrier. A large oil-fueled carrier would enable them to gain experience with a large carrier and allow designers to perfect the design of a nuclear-powered large carrier.
Chinese are keen students of history, their own as well as that of others. Chinese ship designers know all about the Langley and the Enterprise. The Chinese are also well aware that in the two decades after the USS Langley there were tremendous changes in carrier aviation. While the innovation slowed after World War II, major changes continued into the 1950s (jet aircraft, nuclear-propelled carriers, SAMs). But in the ensuing half-century, there has been no major innovation in basic carrier design. This has not been a problem because the carriers have proven useful, at least for the U.S. Navy, the only fleet to use such large carriers.
No one else has maintained a force of these large carriers. Only the U.S. has felt a constant need to get air power to any corner of the planet in a hurry. More importantly, no navy has been able to give battle to the U.S. carrier force since 1945. The Soviets built new anti-carrier weapons and made plans to use them but that war never occurred. China is building carriers but does not yet seem committed to having a lot of them to confront the U.S., but rather just a few to intimidate its neighbors.
The Chinese Navy is very popular with most Chinese and its commanders are enthusiastic about expanding in order to protect the seaborne trade that the modern Chinese economy depends on. For thousands of years Chinese rulers did not consider naval power important because it wasn’t. Now it is and the navy is getting the money and encouragement to do what China has never done before. But at the moment Chinese tech is not up to the task of providing capable carrier aviation, especially on a large scale. The government also realized that the money required to make it all work was not really available either.
The sea trials for China’s second aircraft carrier took 19 months, which is six months longer than their first carrier, CV-16 (Liaoning). There is no official word on why the second carrier took longer to debug but it was put into active service by December 2019. It is known that CV-17 has more electronics, including a powerful AESA (flat panel phased array) radar and a more capable communications and control system built into the ship. It would not be surprising if those improvements caused unexpected and repeated problems.
CV-17 is 315 meters (1,033 feet) long, which is three percent longer that CV-16. CV-17 displaced 75,000 tons, which is 12 percent more than CV-16. Obvious differences are a slightly (about 10 percent) smaller control tower and about ten percent more flight deck area. There is more space internally for maritime and aircraft fuel. It appears that CV-17 would have to be refueled about once a week when at sea.
CV-17 was considered a new design but based on the first Chinese carrier, the Liaoning. That first carrier was a 65,000-ton, 305 meter (999 feet) long ship that was itself a modified version of the last Cold War Russian carrier design. In 2016 China confirmed that CV-17 would also have the ski jump deck like Liaoning, would be somewhat heavier, and incorporate new design features that would enable it to carry more aircraft (mainly the J-15) in a larger hanger deck (just below the flight deck) as well as more fuel and aircraft weapons. Photos of CV-17 under construction revealed that it also incorporated design features that will make it more capable of surviving combat damage as well as operating more efficiently and effectively as a carrier.
In addition to the Chinese built J-15 fighter, the CV-17 had an early-warning radar and anti-submarine aircraft as well as some helicopters. CV-17 operates about 20 percent more aircraft than CV-16 (50 fixed-wing and helicopters compared to about 40). In 2019 China only had about fifty carrier qualified J-15 pilots and CV-16 was kept busy being what was designed for; a training carrier.