06 December 2014

Have We Just Glimpsed China’s Vision of Future Aircraft Carrier Designs?

Andrew S. Erickson, “Asia Get Ready: Is This China’s Vision of Future Aircraft Carrier Designs?The National Interest, 8 December 2014.

Originally published as: Andrew S. Erickson, “Have We Just Glimpsed China’s Vision of Future Aircraft Carrier Designs?” China Analysis from Original Sources 以第一手资料研究中国 (6 December 2014).

A high-caliber model manufacturer may just have provided a unique glimpse into the Chinese vision of aircraft carriers to come. To stimulate discussion in China-watching circles, it is useful to assess the commercial enterprise’s three new indigenous carrier models critically and consider their possible significance before watching for other indicators of how things will ultimately unfold in reality. At very least, this offers a great solution for last-minute holiday gift shopping.

The dimensions and specifications of China’s first aircraft carrier CV16 (Liaoning) are well-known. Based on the Russian Project 11436 hull Varyag, it was long visible under refitting in Dalian Naval Shipyard before finally going to sea in 2011.

Now Jinshuai Model Crafts, based in Zhanjiang City, Jiashan District, is displaying models of putative hulls 17, 18, and 19 on its website and catalogs. These models provide clues to a vital question: what direction will China’s domestic aircraft carrier design and production take? In short, the models suggest: China will progress as quickly as possible to a large nuclear-powered design, similar to a Nimitz– or Ford-class hull with Chinese characteristics, and let deck aviation capabilities grow into the gargantuan new platform as they become able to do so.

Why take the time to analyze these depictions seriously? First, while other models have appeared, to this author’s knowledge this is the first representation of hulls 17-19. The idea of a trio is particularly interesting, because various Chinese sources have described CV16 as merely a training carrier, while stating that China needs at least three fully-functional aircraft carriers. According to People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Military Science Research Fellow Du Wenlong, this is so that “one is always available for operational missions, while the second is used for training and the third is resupplied and retrofitted.” Second, Jinshuai Model Crafts purports to be a cut above the rest. Located near the South Sea Fleet Headquarters in Zhanjiang, it produces a wide range of meticulously detailed models of PLA Navy (PLAN) vessels. The company claims to have produced models given as official gifts by PLA attachés, for fleet visits, and in conjunction with naval diplomacy in the Gulf of Aden—something that would seem to require a track record of at least somewhat passable plausibility. Finally, this company would seem to have an economic incentive to maximize sales by offering the most accurate and forward-looking items possible. It likely has access to contacts and information to help ensure that its representations of platforms are as realistic as possible, particularly in their broader parameters. Where the model builder may be “winging it” a bit with these aircraft carrier models concerns associated weapons systems, sensors, and aircraft. Here, their description is less than official and appears to be influenced by Internet speculation.

Explicit caveat up front: Unless otherwise stated, specifications for weapons and sensors listed below are not from the models themselves, but from nameplates accompanying models of CV17 and CV18. Nameplate data regarding overall carrier dimensions and performance parameters are plausible, but nameplate data regarding weapons and sensors are often inconsistent with what is depicted on the model. These nameplate data are nevertheless included here to offer grist for further discussion and analysis. That is the larger purpose of this writing: not to offer conclusions that go beyond the limited and sometimes contradictory paraphernalia marketed by Jinshuai Model Crafts thus far, but rather to stimulate deeper examination of China’s ongoing development of a highly complex, symbolic system of systems for the seas and air above them.

Like Liaoning, CV17 also has a ski jump. The nameplate accompanying the model cites a length of 315 m, width of 75 m, draft of 9 m, and cruising speed of 31 knots. CV17 is credited with a standard displacement of 65,000 tons and a full displacement of 80,000 tons. These figures seem plausible.

17-1 17-2 17-3 17-4

Rather than representing a mere Chinese copy of the Project 11437 Ul’yanovsk-class-derived carrier, however, CV17’s smokestack shape and exhaust stack arrangement suggests a transition to all gas turbines, or even a diesel/gas turbine combination, instead of nuclear reactors and steam turbines. In another sign of intended design improvements, the model boasts a hydrodynamic projected bulbous bow.

One curiosity in the CV17 model is its incorporation of both a ski-jump and two catapults. While certainly odd from a U.S. perspective, this is not completely outlandish and even makes some sense for China’s “narrow-the-gap-from-behind-” or, ideally, “catch up-” style development of carrier operations. Such a setup could offer a platform for pilots to start working on catapult launches before transitioning to a full-up flattop carrier. Additionally, the relative position of indicated catapult tracks (dark red lines) and related blast deflectors really do not make sense. This might be attributed to a lack of knowledge on the model builder’s part.

Far less clear are the associated systems. Roughly 70 carrier-based aircraft are posited: J-15 fighters, Ka-28 airborne early warning (AEW) helicopters, Z-9 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) utility helicopters, Z-8 transport helicopters, and Ka-31 early warning helicopters. The following items of weaponry are listed: 4 sets of 24 Red Flag [HQ]-16 anti-aircraft missiles, the FL12000 short-range air defense missile-artillery close-in air defense system (sea-based Red Flag [HQ]-10 and -1130), four 30 mm automatic guns, three 12-tube anti-submarine, anti-torpedo launchers, and seven chaff rocket launchers. The exact weapons fit needs to be taken with a grain of salt, but a multi-layer air defense fit is consistent with the Project 11437 design. Also, it is puzzling to see weapons with export designator names mixed in, though it is not inconceivable that China could use them with the indigenous designation being unknown.


It is with the CV18 model that things really get interesting. Advertised as an “indigenously produced nuclear-powered aircraft carrier,” the catapult-equipped flattop closely resembles the U.S. Ford class in configuration, with a similar hull layout and the island far back. Yet there are also echoes of the Nimitz class, familiar to me through my nine days delivering lectures and briefings aboard the flagship USS Nimitz (CVN 68) in April 2013. As with the CV17 model, the positions of the blast deflectors and catapult positions on CV18 can be attributed to a lack of knowledge by the model builder.

18-1 18-2 18-3

This hull is 330 m long and 76 m wide (no draft is given). Standard displacement is 88,000 tons, full displacement is 101,800 tons. All these parameters are similar to those Jane’s gives for both Nimitz and Ford. Nimitz carriers are 332.9 m long and 76.8 m wide, Ford carriers 332.8 m long and 78.0 m wide; the actual deck dimensions are similar. Broadly speaking, CV18’s listed speed, hull form, and reactors are a bit closer to Nimitz’s, while the exterior depicted in the model is a closer to that of the Ford-class. Given China’s penchant for foreign technology collection, copying, incorporation, and multi-source emulation, this may well not be coincidental.

Here is how the model shop imagines China will exploit atomic power and move from CVs to CVNs: Two pressurized water reactors will provide nuclear propulsion. Each reactor drives two sets of main turbines, for a total of four turbines, which connect with four shafts delivering 260,000 hp. One turbine per shaft is conservative, but consistent with U.S. practice.

Total power is 194 megawatts (MW)—presumably not thermal output, but power after all inefficiencies are accounted for; cruising speed 33 knots. This implies the ability to cruise as fast as Nimitz on 15MW less power. This seems optimistic, though theoretically plausible, given the model’s somewhat-lower-drag bow. Puzzlingly, however, whereas the Ford’s bow represents the latest in civilian hydrodynamics—not just bulbous and projecting, but also tipping up—CV18’s bow more closely resembles Liaoning (Project 11436)’s style than CV17’s.

There are also four sets of emergency diesel engines for a total of 8MW. China has considerable experience with low-RPM diesels through its civilian merchant ship production. Implementing this in practice would make CV18-19 the first hulls of only the second class in the world to have both a nuclear power and a conventional propulsion plant arrangement, the existing example being the Russian Kirov class.

In a sign that the model shop may be trying to fill blank space, and orders, CV18’s ~70 carrier-based aircraft are identical to CV17’s, with the following exceptions. Attack UAVs are added, while Ka-31 early warning helicopters are eliminated, presumably because more-advanced JZY-01 airborne warning and control system (AWACs) aircraft can take off from the flat deck. On the actual CV18 model itself, the relevant aircraft on the flight deck has two engines and is consistent with the JZY-01. This aircraft might in theory be outfitted with a smaller variant of the KJ-2000’s active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.

Weaponry listed on the CV18 model’s nameplate is similar to that on CV17’s: 6 sets of 30 mm single-tube artillery, four sets of HHQ-10 point defense missiles, and—somewhat speculatively—four sets of laser anti-missile systems. However, only two sets of HHQ-10 are actually seen on the model, on the forward sponsons. The model clearly shows the same Gatling gun installation as on Liaoning with four H/PJ-14 or the Type 1130. Electronic equipment listed on the nameplate includes a “battle of chaff induced injection device” and a SLQ29 radar warning and jamming system. The last is puzzling, as it is an old U.S. Cold War era system. Perhaps the model shop’s designers needed to add one last detail in time for holiday orders?

As for the model of CV19, it appears identical to that of CV18. The goal seems to be to develop a “Ford class with Chinese characteristics,” and then build additional hull(s).


Weighing the Evidence

There are problems with these models—and particularly their nameplates, to be sure, but the models do suggest a development path. A design concept appears to be gelling that incorporates three elevators, point defenses, and moving the island aft. Jinshuai Model Crafts’ rendition of CV17 resembles a plausible embodiment of a near-term Chinese effort to surpass the Project 11436 class with indigenous effort, particularly with regard to the propulsion plant and bow shape. CV18 and 19, by contrast, appear to be aspirational: an extrapolation based on what China likely wants to do in the future. To paraphrase paramount leader Xi Jinping, this is the “Chinese carrier dream.” And in today’s China, such dreams sell both Party politics and ship models. But even Chinese possession of specific carrier plans is no guarantee of success. Depending on how CV17 actually proceeds and what Chinese naval architects and shipbuilders learn in the process, CV18 and CV19 could end up quite different in reality—different by design.

Developing a Sino-Ford class would require a great leap forward for elements of Chinese naval architecture and engineering. Bending metal and developing the characteristic hull should be well within the means of China’s shipbuilding industry, but reactors are a different story altogether. While it has made tremendous advances in recent years, and has closed the gap with Russia in key areas, China remains behind in propulsion, metallurgy, and certain specialized physical manufacturing processes. Beijing can import French and German diesels and Ukrainian gas turbines for its navy, but must build naval nuclear reactors on its own. This imposes serious limitations. Most civilian technology is not directly applicable: land-based power plant cores are far too large for confined ship spaces. Case in point: the high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGCR) on which Chinese experts have conducted substantial research require far greater volume for a given power rating than water-based reactors. Additionally, highly-enriched fuel is essential for long core life.

To power such a large ship, at the listed maximum speed, with only two reactors requires an increase in power by about a factor of five or six—a non-trivial increase given that nuclear power plants on surface ships remain volume-limited. Still buying foreign designs for its civilian power sector, China has not yet developed, much less demonstrated, naval nuclear reactors of the required size, density, and overall capability.

The Way Ahead?

If the model shop’s projections are—broadly—reasonable in aggregate, how might we expect China to build and develop these carriers?

Given its status as an improved version of CV16, CV17 would likely be produced in Dalian to capitalize on local experience and production synergies accumulated over several years of Varyag’s extensive rebuilding into Liaoning. The timetable reported by a local Liaoning Province official suggests that production of CV17 is already underway. Of course, similar words from a PLAN official or shipyard manager would be more demonstrably authoritative. If CV17 production is indeed already underway in Dalian, grand block sections could be under development surreptitiously, but something too large to cover should soon become visible to foreign satellites. As of October 2014, however, Google Earth showed only merchant vessels in Dalian’s graving docks. In addition, nothing has appeared in any of the graving docks at Shanghai’s Changxing Island Shipyard. The facility has made a prototype cross-section similar in configuration to one seen from a Queen Elizabeth-class carrier. But the prototype hull section remains standing in the storage area in front of one of the docks. No additional work appears to have been done on it. Here, the shipyard, currently-out-of-place with respect to carrier production, appears intent to prove that it is capable too. Perhaps that is yet another sign that things will soon become more interesting for foreign observers of Dalian’s naval shipyard production.

A larger question concerns where the Sino-Ford class would be constructed. Given its cutting-edge new-build facilities and ample space for dedicated military production (in contrast to old, cramped Dalian), Shanghai’s Changxing Island looks promising. But wherever future Chinese nuclear-powered carrier(s) are constructed, their production will represent the first manufacturing of nuclear-powered vessels outside the Huludao submarine production facility on the Yellow Sea. Even if engineers from Huludao are dispatched to offer their expertise as Johnny Appleseeds of Chinese naval nuclear development, this will be a challenging new endeavor for China.

What This Might Mean

Beijing’s path to indigenous carrier development appears to be narrowing and firming up. The desired destination is clearer, even as the journey remains arduous, and the timeline and milestones uncertain. In its typical pattern of emulating and drawing on foreign designs, China appears to be going for the gold standard—the U.S. standard, that is—as quickly as reasonably possible. Top-tier must-haves appear to include American-size hulls, nuclear propulsion, catapults, and advanced wire arrestor gear. Developing new hulls and nuclear propulsion is the first step, improved aircraft can be added in later. As a self-styled great sea power, Beijing is determined to be second to none, even if much work remains to be done to truly get there.

In this regard, a U.S. naval aviator and scholar sounds a note of caution. “It is fascinating that China would throw resources at such ships,” Capt. Robert Rubel (USN-Ret.), former Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies, U.S. Naval War College, told the author. “I know China can build ships more cheaply than the United States can, but such ships will nevertheless be extremely expensive up front, and even more so over time. Without a global naval strategy of exercising command of the sea like the United States has had, the large nuclear aircraft carrier does not have the same meaning to China as ours do to us. These ships may have occasional operational utility in responding to disasters and maybe intimidating to regional neighbors with which China has island and maritime claims disputes, but otherwise they seem to be an attempt to create prestige by cutting metal.”

With respect to these larger questions, the models themselves obviously cannot provide conclusive answers. Chinese shipbuilders and strategists alike have much to contemplate. Only time, and more authoritative data sources, will tell what their options are, and how they choose to exercise them. In the meantime, however, there’s at least one crystal-clear take away: if you haven’t finished your holiday shopping yet, click here immediately to peruse Jinshuai Model Crafts’ many offerings. Such commercial dynamism, which the Soviet Union never enjoyed in any form, may ultimately offer greater indications of China’s ability to support and sustain the production and deployment of new aircraft carriers and other mighty ships upon the sea than any word Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Sergey Georgiyevich Gorshkov could ever put to paper.

And that is why it’s worth at least briefly pondering the latest in injection molding from a civilian shop in southern China. Happy Holidays!