China’s ambitions of having a blue water navy have not been hidden from the world. Its naval modernisation since last two decades has surpassed everyone’s expectations. The modernisation has been consistently keeping pace with the Chinese goals regionally and globally. The Chinese Navy called the PLAN has been constructing major ships at a very fast pace, especially frigates, destroyers, oilers, intelligence and test ships.
Recently, on April 26, China launched its first indigenous aircraft carrier CV-17 to be named (TBN) Shandong. The Chinese propaganda tool, the state media CCTV, had created a fever amongst the world media since February 20 this year about the launch of its first aircraft carrier. The rumours were hyped through various social media and Chinese internet. First, it was announced that the launch would be on April 23, coinciding with the 68th anniversary of the PLAN. However, the launch date was missed by three days.
Indian media too went into an overdrive, lapping up to the beautiful pictures of the launch ceremony on April 26. The pictures were officially published by China’s People’s Daily and PLA Daily. Indian media went another step ahead to incorrectly compare and criticise the government, Ministry of Defence and the Navy for not keeping pace with the Chinese developments. This brought in a sense of despair amongst Indian experts.
In this scenario, this article tries, through satellite imagery, to understand where exactly does this new aircraft carrier of China stand today. The satellite imagery is mostly Google Earth of November 2015 to March 2017.
The construction of CV-17, Shandong, was started somewhere in the beginning of 2015 at Dalian, but it became visible on satellite imagery only on November 2, 2015. This image shows an almost complete hull with two blocks on top and three blocks awaiting their turn on the ground. The bow section was incomplete, especially with the bulbous bow still not started. However, although this picture gave a rough estimate of the size, it could not provide exact dimensions.
The basic structure of CV-17 came into view on November 20, 2015. The shape and size were absolutely clear from the satellite imagery. The length of 305m and beam of 75m was exactly same as that of Liaoning CV-16. It had two aircraft elevators and three take-off positions. The ramp on the bow gave a sleek look although the size remained the same.
The difference was only in the superstructure or the island which is 63m as compared to the Liaoning’s, which is 70m. It was obviously taller with increase in the number of floors visible on satellite imagery. The estimated displacement, with shape and size being same as that of Liaoning, should be similar, if not less. It was assessed to be 60,000 tons.
The construction of CV-17 has surprisingly taken only about two years for its launch. The speed of construction is indeed commendable. The Chinese give credit for this amazing speed to the work culture at all naval shipyards -- 12 hours a day with no holidays and no Sundays. In India, how many companies can boast of that kind of work culture?
The Shandong (TBN) CV-17, however, could not make it for the much hyped launch date of April 23 this year. It was finally launched on April 26, with all the fanfare, confetti and the red flags and balloons. The launch is an event when the ship moves out of the dry dock and is put in water. It is nowhere near commissioning. It would take any time between 2-5 years for actual operational deployment. A ship has to undergo weapons and electronics installations, carry out sea trials and then initial operational capability to be able to deploy gainfully in any operation.
The Digital Globe captured the new carrier vessel on satellite imagery when it was placed at the pier side.
The CV-17 is based on the design of erstwhile Kuznetsov, a design of 1960s. Only cosmetic changes are observed in the size, shape and displacement. The design of a conventionally powered aircraft carrier puts enormous pressures on the carrier aviation as the vessel needs frequent refuelling. The problem becomes more pronounced when it is operating away from country’s shore line.
The launch date of Shandong (TBN) could not be kept up probably due to certain incompleteness in the ship. The obvious inconsistencies observed through satellite imagery are as follows:
The major accessories that were yet to be installed was observed on the image above. The jet blast deflectors (marked in red circles) and possible ammunition elevators were yet to be installed. Gaping holes were observed on satellite imagery of DOI upto 3/15/17. These holes were being covered by yellow covers even at the time of launch, suggesting that they have not been installed as yet. The arrestor cables also have not yet been observed on the deck as of 4/26/17. Possibly China is having issues with procurement of these critical items of an aircraft carrier.
There are rumours about the future plans of China’s carrier vessel programme. The next CV Type 002 is likely to be built at Jiangnan Changxing (JNCX) shipyard near Shanghai.
The above image shows that areas SE of JNCX shipyard has been cleared of villages. Two large halls have been constructed. The work on dry docks has not commenced as yet. It will take about a year and a half for completion of the dry dock from start of the work. The construction of first Type 002 would in all probability start after two years at the earliest.
The second Type 002 is rumoured to be constructed at Dalian shipyard, which possibly should be around the same time frame as CV-17 would take that much time for outfitting and sea trials.
The future CVs are rumoured to be constructed by Hudong Zhonghua (HDZH) shipyard which is likely to build its carrier line NW of JNCX shipyard.
The villages have been cleared for expansion of HDZH shipyard’s carrier line. No other major construction work is observed. This expansion would take anything between two to four years once the construction work commences.
The aviation wing of China’s aircraft carrier seems to be in a nascent stage. The only naval aviation training facility of China at Huangdicun near Xingcheng displays a few J-15s and a few JL-9Gs.
Recent imagery of 3/21/17 shows two J-15s, one of which is in yellow primer, suggesting shortage of aircraft. The shortage is probably being compensated with JL-9Gs. The JL-9Gs do not have a tail hook to practice arrested landing. Therefore, trainee pilots have to wait their turn on J-15 for practice of an arrested recovery. Thus, even the training would be considerably delayed.
This is further complicated by accidents like the one last year in which one aircraft was destroyed and the pilot was killed.
India need not panic at the launch of China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier CV-17 Shandong (TBN). The speed of construction is certainly a matter of concern and worry for the Indian Navy. However, the Chinese navy still has a long way to travel to reach fully operational capability of this new aircraft carrier which is yet to be named.
India must speed up its own CV programme. It should also plan counter strategies like larger submarine fleet and enhance own anti-submarine warfare capabilities, especially in the IOR.
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Col. Vinayak Bhat is a military intelligence veteran of the Indian Army. He has studied Chinese and has worked as an interpreter in the Indian ...Read More +