Earlier this week, China marked the tenth deployment anniversary of its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning (Type 001), by sailing offshore with dozens of fighter jets on deck. The 300-meter ship carried a full load of 24 Shenyang J-15 fighters, a fourth-generation carrier-based multi-role aircraft—the largest fleet of J-15s ever showcased to the public since its introduction in the early 2010s.

From Being a Training Ship to Aircraft Carrier

Aircraft carrier Liaoning (CV-16) is a refurbished and upgraded unfinished Soviet carrier Varyag bought by China from Ukraine in 1998. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Surface Force commissioned the aircraft in 2012 as a training ship. However, by late 2018, after the ship received upgrades and additional training, state-owned media reported that it would be reclassified as a combat role beginning the following year.

Its keel was laid in 1985 for the Soviet Navy and was completed in the late 1980s as the Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier Riga and eventually to Varyag in 1990. The aircraft carrier was transferred to Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was moored until China procured the vessel in the late 1990s when it underwent extensive modification and modernization.

Compared to the US Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, Liaoning is way below in size and capabilities, for 1) its power plant is comparatively inefficient, and 2) its aircraft-launching system is underpowered. Moreover, while Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, including its latest subclasses: George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) and Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), were already outfitted with nuclear-powered propulsions, the Liaoning remains using steam-powered.

The Chinese aircraft carrier has an overall measurement of 304.5 meters in length, 75 meters in beam, and over 60,000 tons of displacement, with a complement of 1,960 crews, 626 aircrew, and 40 flagstaffs. It featured Type 346 S-band AESA radar and conventional steam turbines with diesel generators that could reach 3,850 miles at a maximum speed of up to 32 knots (59 km/h). After the completion of its overhaul, Liaoning has been outfitted with armaments: 3x Type 1130 CIWS (a seven-barreled 30mm Gatling gun) and 3x HQ-10 (18-cell missile system), plus a 2 RBU-6000 ASW rocket launchers and flare/chaff rocket launchers.

Liaoning in the East China Sea
(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The takeoff system of the Chinese aircraft carrier preserves its default STOBAR, which is a combining element of short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) with the catapult-assisted launch but arrested recovery (CATOBAR). On the other hand, Russia and India use the takeoff ramp system on their respective aircraft carriers.

The Chinese aircraft carrier class currently has three more known subclasses: the CV-17 Shandong (Type 002), which joined PLAN on December 2019; the CV-18 Fujian (Type 003), which was launched June this year and is currently under outfitting; and the CV-19 (Type 004) that is allegedly going to be a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which is expected to be completed in the late 2020s.

Showing Off Aerial Power

During the anniversary celebrations, the PLAN has also demonstrated its aerial force by flying some of its J-15 (“Flying Sharks”), a twin-jet carrier fighter jet developed by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation for the PLAN Air Force.

In a recent video released by a Chinese state-owned television, many have pointed out how a J-15 fighter can be seen soaring over what seems to be a “foreign warship,” not the birthday celebrant CV Liaoning. Some experts afterward examined the clipped and identified the vessel as an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. While it wasn’t verified where the J-15 might have flown over, the time, or the exact location that it could, experts suggest that the incident could have occurred in or near the Taiwan Strait.

Aside from the US Navy, Japan and South Korea also operate warships designed on the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. So, it could be either of these ships.

The J-15 fighter jet was an unfinished Su-33 prototype bought by China from Ukraine in 2001. After thoroughly studying the aircraft, Chinese engineers managed to reverse-engineered and began developing in the mid-2000s. By August 2009, the Chinese prototype version was completed preserving the airframe of the Russian prototype, and Russian-made AL-31 turbofan engines reportedly powered its maiden flight. Two months following the debut of Liaoning, J-15 had successfully performed its first takeoff and landing on the Chinese aircraft carrier. Upgrades and modifications came after, with around 50 aircraft built as of 2019, Business Insider reported. The exact number of fleets can be accommodated on the deck of Liaoning and other subclass aircraft carrier vessels.

The 22-meter aircraft has a wingspan of 15 m and stands at 5.92 m, with a gross weight of 27,000 kg. It is powered by 2x Saturn AL-31 afterburning turbofans that generate up to 122.6 kN and achieve a top speed of Mach 2.4 within 3,500 km. Its armaments feature a 1x30mm GST-30-1 (Russian-made autocannon) cannon with 150 rounds, capable of loading short-, medium-, or long-range air-to-air missiles like the PL-15, PL-12, and PL-10 and anti-ship missiles like the YJ-83K, to name a few.

It will be China’s carrier-based fighter for the rest of the 2020s, or at least until its fifth-generation successors, which will most likely be based on the Chengdu J-20 or another Shenyang-made FC-31, are completed.