Several developments in recent weeks point towards China’s efforts to expand the seaborne aviation capability of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The PLAN is seeking to procure amphibious assault ships with significant aviation capability, are finishing construction on the world’s largest aircraft carrier dock, while speculation is mounting over a possible new aircraft carrier training facility and photos have emerged of construction of China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier. Currently the PLAN operates a singleton aircraft carrier which is a refitted Soviet-era ship. Now though, it would seem that China is rapidly moving to enhance its aviation capabilities which would provide a significant boost in the South China Sea dispute and elsewhere.
New Aircraft Carrier Base
According to an article in the August issue of Kanwa Defence Review, a Canada based military affairs magazine that focuses on East Asian security, defense, diplomacy, and weapons technology development issues, the PLAN finished basic construction of a new aircraft carrier dock on Hainan Island last November. Building activity is continuing though.
The new aircraft carrier base is located along the southern coast of Hainan Island a few miles from the city of Sanya and is connected to Yulin Naval Base, an existing nuclear submarine base which has significant underground facilities and is the largest submarine base in Asia. The new base has a docking facility that can accommodate two aircraft carriers and is 700 meters long and 120 meters wide, thus being the longest carrier dock in the world.
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This is the second aircraft carrier base the PLAN has with the other being located at Dalian and the base at Sanya will eventually become the homeport of the two aircraft carriers China is currently building at the shipyards in Dalian. The PLAN’s only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning is based at Dalian though docked at Sanya in November 2013. Construction of the Sanya base began in 2011 and building rapidly progressed over four years. It is reported that the base also holds significant signal monitoring stations which can be used for surveillance in the South China Sea and to collect intelligence on nearby Vietnam.
China Seeking to Procure New Helicopter Assault Ships
Kanwa Defense Review has also reported that China is planning to build a new class of 40,000 ton amphibious assault ships. Known as M1, they are designed from a shipboard aviation perspective to compete with the 28,000 ton Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) Izumo-class helicopter destroyers. Though the JMSDF ships lack amphibious capabilities, they are capable of carrying 14 aircraft.
A model of the M1 was exhibited at the Sixth International Offshore Engineering Technology & Equipment Exhibition held in Beijing this past April. It is likely that if China does procure the M1, it will field Ka-27 and Ka-28 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters in addition to transport helicopters.
Though labeled as helicopter destroyers, the JMSDF Izumo-class pack a potent ASW aviation asset and have given rise to concern in Beijing. Currently, the PLAN does not field any ship comparable to the Izumo-class nor do they field any amphibious assault ships that have significant aviation capabilities.
Photos Emerge of Construction of First Indigenous Aircraft Carrier
Photos of the construction of China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, Type 001A being built at Dalian were recently revealed. The photos reveal that the ship is being built using a pyramid method of hull construction which is still used in building large warships. This is opposed to the block method of building where blocks of a ship are constructed and ultimately fitted together.
Construction of the aircraft carrier is still in early stages and it will be years before it is ready to be launched. The ship will be roughly equivalent in size to the Liaoning though will be entirely modern. Type 001A is one of two new aircraft carriers that China is constructing. Construction of the first carrier is taking place at Dalian due to the shipyards familiarity with the Liaoning; Dalian was responsible for the refurbishment of the carrier after it was acquired from the Ukraine.
New Aircraft Carrier Training Base?
Speculation is growing that Chongming Island might eventually host a new training base for the crews of PLAN aircraft carriers. Recently it was reported that in 2012, the local county government handed over a large tract of land on Chongming Island to PLAN units stationed there. Chognming Island lies near Shanghai and is across from Jiangnan Shipyard which will be most likely responsible for the construction of the PLANs second indigenous aircraft carrier. Since 2012, the PLAN has been expanding facilities on the island while earlier this year, a group of J-10 fighters were relocated there.
China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions
All of these point to China’s interest in expanding the aviation capabilities of the PLAN. Apart from U.S. aircraft carriers stationed in Japan, China is the only country in East Asia with a functioning aircraft carrier. Japan has three helicopter destroyers but they are restricted to rotary wing aviation while South Korea has one amphibious assault ship with the same limitations. Thailand has an aircraft carrier that rarely leaves port and no longer has fixed wing capabilities. Additionally, Australia has two amphibious assault ships, one in active service and one still being completed that are also limited to rotary wing aviation.
In addition to its current aircraft carrier, China is constructing two others and has plans for several more. Acquisition of aircraft carriers will provide the PLAN with the ability to carry out long-range strike missions far from the support of land based aviation. Such a capability will allow PLAN task forces to operate in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean with the protection afforded by carrier-based fighter cover. China has long sought aircraft carriers and the acquisition of them is one more step towards the PLAN achieving a significant blue-water capability.