Earlier in 2019 it looked like China was moving forward to expand its carrier force by building four steam-powered carriers followed by a larger nuclear-powered class similar to the American ones. At the end of 2019, it was announced that plans had changed. There were numerous problems that contributed to the decision and it meant a smaller Chinese fleet with far fewer carriers.
The most immediate problem was the trade war with the United States. Exports to the U.S. are down 23 percent and devaluation of the yuan (the Chinese currency) means that dollars coming from the U.S. trade is down by nearly 30 percent. Exports to other Western nations are down as well, mainly due to foreign manufacturing operations moving out of China to get away from problems that have little to do with the U.S. trade war. Those dollars are important to pay for oil, which China is the largest importer of. Their growing fleet consumes a lot of oil, but the Chinese economy needs it more. Each carrier is accompanied by up to ten support ships. Half of that is warships but the other half are for “sustainment”, carrying oil and other supplies to keep the carriers going for as long as they are at sea. All those ships burn lots of oil, imported oil.
The second problem is military technology. China expected difficulties developing and implementing all the many technologies needed to effectively operate carrier task forces. Fixing those problems is taking longer than expected. This is especially true with the carriers and aircraft that can operate from them. Most of China’s modern aircraft are illegal copies of Russian designs and efforts to implement lots of stolen American aircraft tech has not gone as smoothly as hoped. There has been a pattern of delays and problems with aircraft tech that have stalled ambitious efforts to develop carrier-based fighters and stealth aircraft. No point in building a lot of carriers is they will be limited or sidelined so often by technical problems.
The third problem is that those carriers and other large warships are meant to defend Chinese claims in the South China Sea and that is proving more expensive than anticipated. Not only do the growing number of artificial island bases have to be supplied by ship but to operate larger ships in the generally shallow South China Sea you have to dredge deeper channels to move those large ships around. This year China canceled another major dredging operation because of cost, especially the oil needed for the dredging ships and support vessels. For now, smaller warships and land-based aircraft will defend Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
There is another problem with those claims; many Chinese neighbors have increased their defense spending specifically to deal with the Chinese navy. The American naval forces in the western Pacific plus the fleets of South Korea and Japan were already a formidable naval force blocking the Chinese use of gunboat diplomacy. But now many smaller nations are allied with the larger anti-Chinese nations and those smaller nations are buying lots of submarines, fighter-bombers with anti-ship missiles as well as shore-based anti-ship missiles. The Chinese plan to build more warships and intimidate neighbors into submission backfired. The many threatened neighbors united and joined an arms race China cannot afford.
A fourth problem is demographics. Several decades of the “one-child” per couple policy did prevent a population explosion. It also helped create the first large (several hundred million strong) Chinese middle class of well-educated engineers and other professionals. These are the people who were key to China quickly creating the second largest GDP in the world. But there is a catch. Affluent, talented women everywhere, and throughout history, don’t have a lot of children. Even though the one-child rule was revoked several years ago, the population is not growing, especially with educated couples. Worse the children of middle-class families are not eager to join the military, which needs their skills to operate all this new gear. China has conscription but it is not enforced because it is unpopular, especially among the educated. Those carriers, and all their support ships, need lots of capable officers and someone did the math and realized the ships could be built faster than competent crews could be found. The military, in general, has had a hard time getting capable young men to do all the tech jobs the army and air force, as well as the navy now have. Given the shrinking workforce, because of the one-child rule, that situation is not going to improve for a decade or more.
In light of all those problems the Chinese decision to halt the carrier force expansion is less of a surprise. Actually the decision has been percolating just below the surface for some time. There were always national leaders, and their specialist advisors, who were bringing up these difficulties whenever the admirals asked for more. More naval power is fine but only if you can solve all the technical problems, assemble the necessary expertise and recruit enough personnel to crew all those ships.
Chinese state-controlled mass media prevents public discussion of these matters. As a result changes in policy, especially military policy, appear sudden when, in fact, they are not. For example in mid-2019 Chinese and foreign media were amazed at the continued growth of the Chinese navy. For example, earlier in the year commercial satellite photos have revealed to Western media what appeared to be a new addition to the Jiangnan shipyard on the Yangtze River near Shanghai. The new yard gave the impression that it was devoted to building aircraft carriers. A new carrier, apparently the first 70,000 ton Type 002, was under construction. More revealing was the extensive infrastructure being erected around the new dry-dock and nearby kilometer long fitting out pier. This is something of a mass-production operation with components of the hull and pre-fabricated sections of the hull interior stored nearby to be lifted into place and attached to the hull and other sections. This is a technique widely used in commercial shipbuilding and for other Chinese warships, including the new 12,000 ton Type 55 destroyers and 40,000 ton Type 075 LPH amphibious ship.
The new “carrier yard” could be used for building smaller ships but it was essential for turning out carriers quickly. The Type 002 carrier uses catapults to launch aircraft. The hull of the first one, already underway, is apparently going to take less than two years to finish and launch. After that, it moves to the fitting out pier where another two or three years of work is needed before the new carrier ready for sea trials. That process, including trips back to port or the shipyard for fixes and adjustments, can take a year or so. Or longer. Earlier Chinese carrier development included mentions of “persistent technical problems.”
China has not revealed how many carriers it plans to build eventually. China already has two; CV-16 in service and a similar CV-17 (the Shandong) recently completed trials, was commissioned on December 19th and was seen passing near Taiwan on the 26th. 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. These two will be a bit larger than CV-17 and the first one is already under construction and is expected to be in the water by 2020 and in service by 2024. One thing that might delay the Type 002 is the decision on which catapult system (steam or electric) to use. The U.S. Navy has had problems getting its EMALS (electromagnetic aircraft launch system) to work effectively and the Chinese may be waiting to see how that works out before deciding. The Type 002 will have a steam propulsion system but one that will produce a lot more electricity (for laser weapons and catapult). After the two catapult equipped carriers are evaluated, it is believed that two nuclear-powered carriers are planned (CVN-20 and 21). These will be similar to the 100,000 ton American Nimitz class CVNs. Chinese working on nuclear propulsion for submarines had long encountered lots of technical problems that have seriously limited the development of an effective Chinese nuclear submarine force. Apparently these 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 achieved.
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 is already preparing for that by building enough escort and support ships, along with air wings, to keep several carrier task forces (each with one carrier) busy while one or more carriers sidelined by months of maintenance and upgrades. China also recently announced 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.
It is difficult to hide carrier construction activity and it’s not just the spy satellites. Revelations about CV-17 Type 001A carrier over the last few years were not a total surprise as there had been reports that a large aircraft carrier (or parts of it) was under construction in northwest China (Dalian) since 2013. 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 initially tried to prevent this but soon realized that cracking down on enthusiastic and Internet-savvy Chinese fans of the navy was 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. The admirals, and navy personnel in general, appreciated the good publicity.
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. 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 before that 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.
Based on what is being said in Chinese media and around the shipyard, the performance of CV-17 will play a large role. CV-17 was expected to undergo one or two years of sea trials before entering service. While the sea trials seemed ahead of schedule in early 2019, with talk of CV-17 entering service in April, that optimism was dampened when the expected “unexpected problems” showed up and required more sea trials, alternating with time in port so that items could be fixed, upgraded, repaired or replaced. Unlike CV-16, the engines of CV-17 were less of a problem.
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 is taking longer to debug but it was put into active service on December 19. 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. The CV-16 has made ten sea trial voyages before it entered service. CV-17 made nine. CV-17 has been in the water since April 2017, when it was launched. That was 25 months after construction began. At the end of 2017 CV-17 was dockside being prepared for sea trials, which began on schedule in May 2018.
CV-17 is a Type 001A carrier 315 meters (1,033 feet) long, which is three percent longer that CV-16. The new carrier displaces 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.
It was only at the end of 2015 that China admitted the CV-17 existed and was referred to as Type 001A ship rather than Type 001 because it is slightly different from its predecessor. In March 2016 China revealed more details, some of them already obvious. 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 new carrier will also have early-warning radar and anti-submarine aircraft as well as some helicopters. CV-17 could apparently operate about 20 percent more aircraft than CV-16 (50 fixed-wing and helicopters versus about 40). Currently, China only has about fifty carrier qualified J-15 pilots and Liaoning is kept busy being what it is officially described as; a training carrier.