China Aircraft Carrier Type 001A
The Type 001A, with a likely hull number 17, will be China's second, and first homebuilt aircraft carrier. Once it enters service in 2020, it will make the PLAN the world's second (but still distant) most powerful aircraft carrier force.
China Aircraft Carrier Type 001A

Dalian Shipyard

Dalian Shipyard, part of CSIC, is where China’s first domestic carrier, CV-17, was built. It will also likely be the builder for China’s first, nuclear powered supercarrier.

China’s first domestically built carrier, “Type 001A”, is making brisk progress in its Dalian drydock. Tracing its design to the Soviet Admiral Kuznetsov class of aircraft carriers, the Type 001A will displace around 60,000-70,000 tons, is powered by steam turbines, and will carry between 30 and 40 helicopters and J-15 fighter jets. Type 001A first began construction in late 2014, and is expected to be launched in 2017, with commissioning in 2019-2020 timeframe. Since the beginning of the year, many modules have been assembled, including the below-deck hangar bay, openings for aircraft elevators, and in new photos, the ship’s ski jump soon to be welded to the carrier’s front.

China Aircraft Carrier Type 001A Ski Jump

Ski Jump Ramp

This part of the ski ramp, hoisted by a crane at the Dalian Shipyard, will enable the Type 001A aircraft carrier to launch J-15 fighters for strike and air superiority missions.

Short Takeoff But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) type aircraft carriers differ from aircraft carriers like the USN’s Nimitz class (which uses catapults to boost aircraft into the skies) in that they use a ski ramp mounted at the aircraft carrier’s front to set the launching aircraft at an forward and upwards trajectory. The Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, uses ski ramps to launch its J-15 jet fighters.

China J-15 "Flying Sharks" Carrier Fighters in flight above the sea

Flying Sharks

Gaoshan, a famous CGI artist of Chinese aircraft, shows two J-15 “Flying Shark” carrier fighters with full loads of anti-air and anti-ship missiles. The J-15 can take off from the ski ramps of the Liaoning and Type 001A with a decent mixed payload of air-to-air missiles, guided bombs and fuel, but it could carry much more if it operated on a catapult-equipped aircraft carrier.

The advantage of STOBAR carriers is that they are simpler to build and operate than a catapault, not to mention cheaper. That comes at a price; they are only suitable for launching fighter/attack jets, which have a high enough thrust/weight ratio to reach high speeds needed to launch off a ski ramp. (Some fighter jets, like the J-15, have enough engine output to take off with a useful surface attack load and decent fuel load.) Subsonic aircraft, such as transport aircraft, airborne early warning and anti-submarine warfare aircraft are unable to launch off a ski ramp. This limits the aircraft carrier’s varied support aircraft to slower and smaller helicopter platforms.

China Aircraft Carrier Type 001A

A Chip off the Old Block

The Type 001A aircraft carrier will be largely similar to the Liaoning, its Soviet designed predecessor, in order to same costs, time and crew training while the first truly indigenous Chinese aircraft carriers Type 002 and Type 003 get ready by 2030. While limited in some ways, the Type 001A and Liaoning carriers are still potent air superiority and defense platforms, giving aerial cover to Chinese naval task forces far away from the Mainland.

Of course, the Type 001A is still far from completion, and even when the hull itself is finished and launched, it will require years more of work to install electronics, crew amenities, and aircraft maintenance equipment. However, it should be able to run up to full capacity more rapid than its sister ship the Liaoning, since the PLAN will have nearly a decade of experience in operating carriers by this point. Like the Liaoning, it will play a critical role in building up China’s carrier pilot cadre, in addition to providing air defense and limited surface strike capabilities for Chinese surface warfare mission near and far aboard.

China Huangdicun EMALS Catapult Aircraft Carrier

A Tale of Two Catapults

At the Huangdicun naval base in Liaoning Province, these January 2016 satellite photos show that the lower catapult, with the red sheds, is almost if not already complete. Its completely rectangular layout, compared to the other catapult, suggests that the lower catapult uses EMALS, since that regular shape is highly suitable for linear magnetic motor installation. The wider base of the unfinished catapult is likely to be steam powered; that extra room is suitable for housing equipment to launch the steam piston.

The deployment of a ski ramp, though, doesn’t mean this is the plan for following Chinese carriers. To look into the future, we need to look south at Huangdicun, Liaoning, where the PLAN is getting ready to test aircraft carrier catapults. Satellite imagery dating to early 2016 shows the construction of two parallel catapult trenches at the test site; the wider trench is suspected to be equipped for a Electromagnetically Assisted Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) catapult. First used by the Ford class carrier, a EMALS catapult uses a linear motor drive, instead of steam pistons on older catapults, to accelerate the catapult shuttle holding the aircraft’s nosegear on the flight deck. Compared to steam catapautls, EMALS catapults are less maintenance intensive, mechanically simpler and have greater power and flexibility to launch aircraft of different sizes. If the Chinese EMALS catapult is selected and successful, the future Chinese aircraft carriers would be a truly formidable force.

Thanks to Vincent at China Defense Forum for noting the correct province Huangdicun is located in.

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