China has made no official announcement but a large aircraft carrier appears under construction in northwest China (Dalian). The mystery ship has all the hallmarks of a carrier. The only unknown is if this large (over 50,000 ton) vessel will have an angled flight deck. If not it would be an amphibious ship using helicopters. As construction proceeds all these questions will be answered. What is visible is just one section of the ship and it is unclear how many of these sections there will (and thus how long the ship is). Although China is building a 22 meter (71 foot) high wall around parts of the Dalian naval base to prevent people from taking pictures of what is going on there this has not stopped amateur naval enthusiasts. Some of the new commercial construction in the area has resulted in an unexpectedly tall apartment building going up near the base. The military got new laws passed to restrict the height of new buildings put up near military bases. Getting existing buildings torn down is too difficult (some of the owners are powerful locals) so up goes the wall.
One of the best sources of information on Chinese warship construction is the Internet. Thousands of Chinese naval buffs living close to major shipyards provide a steady supply of photos on the web. The Chinese government tried to prevent this but over the last decade has come to realize that cracking down on enthusiastic and Internet savvy Chinese fans of the navy is not a wise move. A lot of important secrets are still preserved by building parts of ships in a shed and a lot of the most valuable military secrets are with equipment installed inside the ship or behind a wall. So the government allows all (with a few exceptions) these photos to appear.
Then there are 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.
It is unclear if this is what is under construction at Dalian. The first Chinese carrier, the Liaoning is hull number 16 and photos that appeared in 2013 showed sections of a new Chinese carrier under construction. This ship would probably have hull number 17. All this implies the third Chinese carrier, the second one built in China, would be nuclear and probably closer in design to the recently decommissioned American USS Enterprise (CVN 65). This was the first 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 (instead of a 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.
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) and 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 2013 photos from a Chinese shipyard appeared to show an aircraft carrier using a catapult rather than a ski jump flight deck for launching aircraft. Large ships, including warships, are often built in sections, then the sections are welded and bolted together. The section of what appears to be a carrier does not indicate the exact size of the new carrier, other than that it appears larger than the new carrier China commissioned at the end of 2012.
China commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning in September 2012. At the time China was believed to be building the first of several locally designed aircraft carriers but the Chinese officially denied this. The only official announcements have alluded to the need for two or three aircraft carriers, in addition to the Liaoning. Construction of such large ships had been seen in shipyards like Dalian.
The Liaoning is a 65,000 ton, 305 meter (999 feet) long ship that spent over a year on sea trials. During that time Liaoning was at sea for about four months. This was all in preparation for flight operations that began in November 2012 and were a success and the Chinese built J15 (a Su-27 variant) jet fighter eventually participated in these carrier operations. In 2013 China confirmed that the Liaoning will primarily be a training carrier. The Chinese apparently plan to station up to 24 jet fighters and 26 helicopters on the Liaoning and use the ship to train pilots and other specialists for additional carriers. Meanwhile, the Liaoning will also be staffed and equipped as a combat ship as well.
Liaoning began as one of the two Kuznetsov class carriers that Russia began building in the 1980s. Originally the Kuznetsovs were to be 90,000 ton nuclear powered ships (the Ulanovsk class), similar to American Nimitz class carriers (complete with steam catapults). Instead, because of the high cost and the complexity of modern (American style) carriers, the Russians were forced to scale back their plans and ended up with 65,000 ton (full load) ships that lacked steam catapults and used a ski jump type flight deck instead. Nuclear power was dropped but the Kuznetsovs were still a formidable design. China may have bought or stolen details of the Ulanovsk class plans, or are simply using the concept. Then again, the new carrier may simply be a scaled up Kuznetsov/Liaoning.
The Kuznetsovs normally carry a dozen navalized Su-27s (called Su-33s), 14 Ka-27PL anti-submarine helicopters, two electronic warfare helicopters, and two search and rescue helicopters. But the ship was built to carry as many as 36 Su-33s and sixteen helicopters. The Kuznetsovs carry 2,500 tons of aviation fuel, allowing it to generate 500-1,000 aircraft and helicopter sorties. Crew size is 2,500 (or 3,000 with a full aircraft load). While the original Kuznetsov is in Russian service, the second ship, the Varyag, was launched but not completed and work stopped in 1992. The Chinese bought the unfinished carrier in 1998, towed it to China, and spent over a decade completing it as the Liaoning.
Meanwhile the Nimitz class is being replaced. The U.S. Navy's newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R Ford (CVN 78) was launched and christened in late 2013 and is expected to enter service in 2016. The first ship of the next class of carriers, the Ford will be about the same length (333 meters/1,092 feet) and displacement (100,000 tons) of the previous Nimitz class ships but will look different. The most noticeable difference will be the island set closer to the stern (rear) of the ship. The USS Ford is expected to cost nearly $14 billion. About 40 percent of that is for designing the first ship of the class, so the actual cost of the first ship (CVN 78) itself will be some $9 billion. Against this the navy expects to reduce the carrier's lifetime operating expenses by several billion dollars because of greatly reduced crew size.
Compared to the current Nimitz class carriers (which cost over $5 billion each to build) the Fords will feel, well, kind of empty even through there will be 4,600 personnel on board. There will be lots more automation, computer networking, and robots. The most recent Nimitz class ships have a lot of this automation already. Like the Nimitz class, the Fords will carry about 75 aircraft and helicopters. The catapults will be electromagnetic rather than steam powered and its nuclear power plant will not have to be partially taken apart to be refueled. The new catapults and other design improvements will allow the Fords to launch 20-30 percent more sorties per day than the Nimitz class ships.