With Shandong, Beijing already has two aircraft carriers and continues to build a third, fourth or fifth to serve its ambition to become a military power.
On December 17, 2019, at Sanya Port, Hainan Island, in the presence of President Xi Jinping, China officially commissioned the Shandong aircraft carrier, also known as Type 001A. This event marked a new milestone in the strategy of developing naval power for China to become a maritime power, in the context of competing with the US in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Chinese are proud of Shandong as a 100% domestic carrier, the second in China’s ambitious naval development program with a fleet of 4 to 5 aircraft carriers. Such vigorous naval modernization efforts have made observers question: China places a great emphasis on naval development strategies to counter America’s containment strategy in Asia-Pacific, or just deterring other countries in the region?
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, of Hong Kong Baptist University, said: “Aircraft carriers are a powerful attribute. It places China above regional countries and helps China boost its presence in the South China Sea and East China Sea.” These are also the waters where Beijing has expressed ambition to dominate, through territorial claims in spite of international law. China’s ambition to become a naval power began to form in the 1990s and 2000s, but it has become a priority since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.
Construction work on Shandong began in 2015, she was launched in April 2017 and completed in 2018. Shandong was developed based on the experiences that China gained from its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. Back to Liaoning, this is an aircraft carrier rebuilt by China based on the wreck of Varyag that China sought to obtain from Ukraine. Shandong and Liaoning share the basic design elements as well as the propulsion system, but they are not completely identical.
Shandong carrier design
The overall dimention of Shandong is slightly larger than its predecessor. She has a standard displacement of 55,000 tons and a full load between 66,000 to 70,000 tons. Shandong has a length of 315m (1,033 ft), a beam of 75m (246 ft) and a draft of about 11m (36 ft).
Although Shandong inherited the design features from the Kuznetsov class, the architectural parts have been improved. Drawing on experience from the first aircraft carrier, Shandong has a wider aircraft deck and less sweeping at the leading edges. The entire width of the runway at the portside is also significantly longer. The superstructure part of the air traffic tower is similar to that in Liaoning but more compact, helping to free up more space for the aircraft. The ship’s superstructure is built in two parts: the nine-deck forward half, containing the bridge and main mast. The other half is at the aft, with the funnel and air intakes. Shandong still retains the ski jump at a 12 degree angle. The electromagnetic aircraft launch system is used to launch naval aircraft from the deck. While Liaoning has only two rectangular elevators arranged along the starboard, Shandong is designed with three bell-shaped elevators to make the ship’s activities more flexible. Basically, Shandong is an improved version of the previous Liaoning with dimensions comparable to the US Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier.
Shandong carrier propulsion system
The Chinese has invested heavily in the development of aircraft carriers in recent years, but the technology they have is not sufficient to produce nuclear aircraft carriers. The propulsion system is provided by steam turbines from eight boilers, driving four propellers, producing a total capacity of 200,000 horsepower. In addition, she is also equipped with turbine and diesel generators to provide power for onboard activities. Shandong can reach a maximum speed of 31 knots. Because there is no nuclear energy like the American carriers, her ability to operate is worse, depends on refueling. The operating range of Shandong is 14,000 nautical miles at an economic cruising speed of 14 knots. The ship can operate at sea for 90 consecutive days without support from auxiliary ships, crew including about 2,000 men.
Shandong carrier air wing
The carrier is designed to carry around 50 aircrafts, including helicopters and fixed-wing planes. Shandong will operate the Shenyang J-15 carrier-based fighter aircraft, the Z-18 medium transport helicopter and the Harbin Z-9 utility helicopter.
Shandong carrier armament
In terms of weapons, Shandong is equipped with three HHQ-10 Surface-to-Air Missile systems, also known as FL-3000N. The HHQ-10 is similar in design to the American RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile system. HHQ-10 is a 24 cell launcher, developed from the TY-90 air-to-air missile. The HHQ-10 can reach a maximum speed of Mach 2, effective range of 500m to 9 km and only 6 km for supersonic targets. The HHQ-10 missile uses a combined guidance system that incorporates both passive radio frequency guidance and imaging infrared guidance. The system is usually fully automatic without human intervention, but manual operation can be inserted when needed. A total of 54 HHQ-10 are carried.
Shandong’s Close-in weapon system is three Type 1130 systems. Type 1130 is a further development of Type 730, it also appeared on the Liaoning aircraft carrier. The Type 1130 is a Chinese eleven-barrelled 30 mm Gatling gun Close-in weapon system. It has a reported rate of 11,000 rounds per minute. There are two ammunition drums each contains 640 rounds.
Shandong aircraft carrier in China’s ambition
With the new aircraft carrier, it is clear that China wants to be ready for a clear, strong and lasting presence in the seas where it wants to gain control to protect its ships, especially the tankers for them from the Middle East. To prevent Beijing’s ambition, the United States recently dispatched warships to the South China Sea area, close to disputed islands, even into Taiwanese waters. Such moves are viewed by Beijing as provocative and threatening. According to the Chinese military scholars, the new aircraft carrier is a great help to preserve sovereignty, territorial integrity and national security against threats from the US Navy.
With Shandong, Beijing already has two aircraft carriers and continues to build a third, fourth or fifth to serve its ambition to become a military power. Their goal is not to compete with the US, but to dominate other countries in the region, especially with Japan and South Korea, then to countries in Southeast Asia.
Military experts agree that China will take at least 10 more years for the Navy to fill the gap in modern combat experience with the aircraft carrier fleet. The immediate challenge for the Chinese navy is to train enough navy air force pilots to be able to take off and land on aircraft carriers. They also need to build warship groups to coordinate with aircraft carriers.