China's first domestically built aircraft carrier, the Type 001A, is shown at Dalian Port in Liaoning province. Photo: AFP
China's first domestically built aircraft carrier, the Type 001A, is shown at Dalian Port in Liaoning province. Photo: AFP

Beijing has sought to deny that its first indigenous aircraft carrier appears to be a copycat version of the Liaoning, a retrofitted, second-hand Soviet carrier bought by the People’s Liberation Army Navy in 2012. The two ships share similar upturned ramps on their bows, as well as angled flight decks, and are of the same Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) layout.

The homemade sea-going airbase is now taking shape at a shipyard in the northeastern port city of Dalian. The yard’s dry dock was flooded for the first time in late April.

CCTV, the Chinese state broadcaster, recently interviewed a PLA admiral in a program highlighting the warship’s features. The new round of media hype has played out, however, against a backdrop of some commentators questioning the need to splurge money on emulating obsolescent carrier technologies from the Soviet era.

China’s first homemade aircraft carrier is seen during its launch in Dalian on April 26, 2017. Photo: Reuters

People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) admiral Yin Zhuo, a well-known commentator on military affairs in China, told CCTV that the first advantage the homemade carrier has over the Liaoning is a more spacious hangar.

“The hull design of the Liaoning was, from the beginning, based on that of a heavy cruiser, when the ship bore the name of Riga during construction in the 1980s,” said Yin. “But the one being built in Dalian is designed as a full-scale carrier from day one.”

The Liaoning‘s 12 anti-ship cruise missiles are located in launchers below the flight deck. By contrast, the new ship’s hangar is spacious enough for more shipboard fighters.

The Liaoning’s bulky island and bridge have also been trimmed for the homemade carrier, which features a shorter but higher island control structure. This means it takes up a smaller portion of the flight deck, where space is at a premium.

The island control structure on the new carrier (left) is shorter than the one on the Liaoning. Photo: CCTV

As with the Liaoning, the bulk of fighters in the new carrier’s strike group are believed to be J-15s, single-seat, twinjet, all-weather fighters specifically developed for seagoing airbases.

Overseas observers have long pointed out that the reliance on ski-jump launches and lack of carrier-based refueling capabilities may reduce the J-15’s effective range. According to Yin, however, the PLA has been working towards a carrier-based version of its fifth-generation fighters.

The two carriers use the same electronically-scanned array radars, with two different radomes – bulging ones on the Liaoning and flat radomes on the new carrier.

The island control structure and radar system on the new carrier. Photo: CCTV

“Flat radomes mean better thermal diffusivity, and the radar system installed on the new carrier is the enhanced version of the one first developed for Type 052D destroyers,” said Yin.

Larger, rectangular radar arrays can house more transceiver modules for long-range air search and targeting, a remedy for the absence of carrier-based early warning and control aircraft.

Furthermore, such flat arrays suggest the likely adoption of coolant instead of the mixed air and liquid cooling system on the Liaoning.

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