The PLA Navy has been attempting to acquire aircraft carriers, either through indigenous development or foreign purchase, since the mid-1980s. A carrier capability is seen by Chinese military planners as crucial in developing a “blue water” navy  capable of operating on the high seas.


China’s pursue of the aircraft carrier capability has been closely associated with the country’s naval strategies. Although the construction of aircraft carriers has long been a long-term aspiration for the PLA Navy, for a very long time aircraft carriers and other large surface combatant vessels were viewed as neither affordable nor necessary, as the PLA Navy’s primary role was confined to assisting the Ground Forces to defend the country’s costal waters and islands.

In the 1980s, the then Commander of the PLA Navy Admiral Liu Huaqing developed a three-step strategy for modernising China’s naval forces. The first step of the strategy was focused on the development of a relatively modernised naval force that can operate within the First Island Chain, a series of islands that stretch from Japan to the north, to Taiwan, and Philippines to the south. The second step aimed to build a regional naval force that can operate beyond the First Island Chain to reach the Second Island Chain, which includes Guam, Indonesia, and Australia. In the third-stage, a global naval force capable of operating anywhere in the world will be established by the mid 21st century.

Under this strategy, the PLA Navy began to actively pursue a carrier programme in the mid-1980s. Between 1985 and 2000, China purchased four required aircraft carriers from foreign countries, including the former Australian carrier HMAS Melbourne (1985), and former Soviet carrier Varyag (1998), Minsk (1998), and Kiev (2000). These vessels were carefully studied by engineers and technicians of the PLA Navy and Chinese shipbuilding industry in order to gain insight into the construction and operation of such large vessels.

Inspired by the U.S. Navy’s practice of appointing naval pilots to captain their carriers, the PLA Guangzhou Naval Academy launched a ‘Pilot Warship Captain’ course in 1987 to train naval pilots to command warships. Nine naval pilots graduated from the course after three years of studies and all later served on navy destroyers as captains.

In 2008, a group of 50 students were recruited into a training programme at the PLA Dalian Naval Academy (DNA) to become naval aviators that can operate fixed-wing aircraft from the aircraft carrier. The four-year programme included classroom lectures in automation and control engineering, seamanship, as well as theories of flight and aircraft systems. This was followed by a flight training programme, beginning with primary flight training on land and eventually leading to the advanced shipborne flight training.

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Purchase of Varyag

China purchased the unfinished ex-Soviet Navy aircraft carrier Varyag from Ukraine in 1998 and finally received the vessel in 2002. After some extensive refurbishments at the Dalian Shipyard in northern China, the vessel was commissioned by the PLA Navy in September 2012 and renamed Liaoning. The primary role of the vessel is to serve as a training platform for the PLA Navy to gain experience in operating from a modern aircraft carrier, and to develop and perfect the relevant technologies that will be used for the design and construction of China’s indigenous carriers.

The Varyag is the second hull of the Soviet Navy Project 1143.5 (Admiral Kuznetsov class) aircraft carrier. The 67,500-tonne vessel, originally named Riga, was laid down at the Nikolayev South Shipyard (formerly Shipyard 444) in Nikolayev on 6 December 1985 and was launched on 4 December 1988. The vessel was renamed Varyag in July 1990. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the ownership of the vessel was transferred to Ukraine. Construction stopped by 1992 due to a lack of funding. By then, 70% of the construction had been finished. The vessel was structurally completed but without weapons, electronics, or propulsion.

China first expressed interest in purchasing the Varyag in 1992. Chinese officials inspected the vessel stationed at the dock of the Nikolayev South Shipyard, but the negotiations was fruitless due to dispute over price. As a result, the unfinished Varyag remained at the dock unattended for six years. In the late 1990s, the vessel was put up for auction and bought by a Macau-based Chinese company for US$20 million for conversion into a floating Casino and amusement park. The contract with Ukraine prohibited the buyer from using the vessel for military purposes. Before handing the ship over, the Ukrainians striped all onboard equipment with potential military values from the Varyag.

11 years after its launch, in 1999, the Varyag finally left the dock of the Nikolayev South Shipyard, towed by several high-power tug boats on its way to the Far East. However, the vessel was refused to pass through the Bosporus Strait by the Turkish government on the ground that the unpowered vessel posed too much risk for other ships as well as facilities in the strait. The Varyag was stationed near the strait for three years. After the Chinese government intervened and handed the Turkish government US$1 million as a guarantee bond, the vessel was finally approved to continue its journey in 2002.

After a troublesome journey, the Varyag finally arrived at the Dalian Shipyard in northern China in March 2002 and was stationed there under tight security. By then it became apparent that the vessel was never going to be turned into an amusement park. Instead, it was handed to the PLA Navy for research and restoration. Along with the vessel, Ukraine also handed to China all of the vessel’s blueprints and design documents. In 2005, the vessel was moved to a dry dock in the Dalian Shipyard painted in the PLA Navy grey, with scaffoldings erected around.

The restoration work was completed in late 2006. The aircraft was then moved to another dry dock in April 2009 to install engines and other heavy equipment. System installation commenced in late 2010. By March 2011 the island of the aircraft carrier was almost complete, with painting finished and scaffolding removed.

In June 2011, the PLA Chief of Staff General Chen Bingde confirmed that China was building an aircraft carrier — the first official acknowledgement of the existence of such a project. On 27 July, the Chinese Ministry of National Defence announced that it was refitting a second-hand aircraft carrier for ‘scientific research, experiment, and training purposes”. The first four-day sea trial of the vessel began in August, followed by a second set of trials in December, before the vessel was returned to the shipyard for final touches.

On 25 September 2012, the aircraft carrier was officially commissioned by the PLA Navy, with a new name Liaoning and hull number 16. In November, the Chinese Ministry of National Defence confirmed that the PLA Naval Aviation’s J-15 fighters had successfully performed touch-and-go and arrested landings on the Liaoning. Chinese press estimated that crew training would continue for 4 to 5 years before the aircraft carrier reaches its full capacity.

Varyag at the Nikolayev South Shipyard

Varyag en route to China

Varyag reborn as Liaoning

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The Liaoning features a short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) arrangement. Aircraft take-off is assisted by a bow ski-jump angled at 14°. The flight desk is fitted with arresting wires. Two starboard lifts carry the aircraft from the hangar to the flight deck. The carrier operates a number of Shenyang J-15 carrier-based multirole fighters, including its two-seat fighter-trainer variant J-15S. In addition, the PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF) has been flying several models of ship-based helicopters from the vessel, including the Changhe Z-18 transport helicopter, the Z-18J AEW helicopter, and the Z-18F ASW helicopter.

Liaoning aircraft operation systems

PLANAF J-15 fighters operating from Liaoning

Z-18 Helicopters

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The Varyag was originally to be fitted with a Granit (SS-N-9 Shipwreck) anti-ship missile system. The missile launcher was removed before the vessel was sold to China, and the launcher base was removed during the refit to give a larger aircraft hangar space. For short-range air defence, the Liaoning is fitted with four HQ-10 (FL-3000N) air-defence missile systems, each with an 18-cell missile launcher. The missile launcher is similar to the U.S. Navy RIM-116 in arrangement. Derived from the TY-90 short-range air-to-air missile, the HQ-10 is fitted with a dual passive radar-/infrared-homing seeker and has a maximum range of 9,000 m. An improved variant is reportedly fitted with an independent active infrared seeker, with a maximum range of 10,000 m.

There are also two Type 1030 close-in weapon system (CIWS), which is the 10-barrel version of the Type 730 CIWS. The weapon system has a 10-barrel 30mm cannon, which is fed by two ammunition boxes each holding 500 rounds of ready-to-use ammunition. One magazine would typically hold armour piercing discarding sabot and the other high explosives. The empty cartridge cases are ejected forwards out of the lower part of the mount. The cannon is driven by external power, with a maximum cyclic rate of fire of 3,500—6,000 rounds/min. The cannon has a maximum range of 3,000 m, but targets are typically engaged at a distance of 1,000—1,500 m.

Sensors identified on the Liaoning include:

  • Type 382 Sea Eagle S/C air-search radar (mast top);
  • Type 346 air search radar, with a set of four active electronically scanned array (AESA) panels on the bridge;
  • HQ-10 SAM fire-control radar;
  • Sea search radar;
  • Aircraft surveillance radar;
  • Navigation radar;
  • Datalink antenna;
  • SATCOM antenna;

The Liaoning is conventionally powered, possibly using a propulsion system similar to that of the Russian Navy Kuznetsov, consisting of eight boilers and four steam turbines (50,000 hp each). The vessel is fitted with four shafts with fixed-pitch propellers.

Liaoning Specifications

Length 304.5 m
Beam 75 m
Draft 8.97 m
Displacement 53,050 t (standard)
59,100 t (full-load)
Powerplant Steam turbines
Speed N/A
Range N/A
Endurance N/A
Complement 1960 crew
626 air group
Guns Type 1030 CIWS X3
Missiles FL-3000N SAM (18-cell) X3
Fixed-wing Shenyang J-15
Helicopters Changhe Z-18 transport helicopter
Changhe Z-18F ASW/anti-ship helicopter
Changhe Z-18J AEW helicopter
Kamov Ka-31 (Helix) AEW helicopter

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First Indigenous Aircraft Carrier

A spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of National Defence confirmed for the first time on 31 December 2015 that China was constructing an indigenous aircraft carrier. The spokesperson announced that the carrier was being designed entirely using “domestic technology” and would draw on “experience learned” from operating the PLA Navy’s first aircraft carrier.

The new carrier is estimated to have a displacement of 50,000 tonnes, similar to Liaoning, but will feature some improvements over the initial Ukrainian design. In contrast to earlier speculations that China’s first indigenous carrier would feature a catapult take-off system, the new carrier is expected to feature a bow ski-jump similar to that of Liaoning. This is because the PLA Navy’s only carrier-based fighter aircraft, the Shenyang J-15, was not designed with an option to use a catapult system for take-off.

In addition, the earlier speculation of the new carrier using a nuclear-powered propulsion system is also highly unlikely. China possess no previous experience in building nuclear-powered ships (apart from its nuclear-powered submarines), and to develop a nuclear propulsion system would significantly delay the process of building additional carriers. As a result, it is almost certain that the first Chinese indigenous carrier will be conventionally powered, using steam turbines similar to those of Liaoning.

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