One port, two carriers: Liaoning and her sister carrier, Type 001A, are seen at the Dalian Shipyard in May 2018. Photo: Weibo

The Chinese Navy has long embraced a “copycat” approach in vessel and weaponry development, an example of which is its first homemade aircraft carrier, a 21st century replica of an ageing Soviet carrier.

The navy has taken short quick steps, trialing gradual innovation through the development of transitional or even “knockoff” vessel designs and technologies.

“It’s just like launching initial trials to take a leaf out of another’s book, coupled with China’s own expertise of imitation and emulation to tackle teething problems at the beginning, followed by swift, mass application and mass production… A similar approach to the one China took to become the world’s factory,” said a PLA Daily editorial on weaponry development.

In recent years, China has quietly boosted the numbers and combat capabilities of its destroyer and frigate fleets. The launch of its Type 051C and Type 052B destroyers at the beginning of the 21st century were a clear bid to plug the navy’s obvious voids in stealth technology and air defense.

In subsequent years the navy continued to take pragmatic yet solid steps as it rolled out more advanced variants including the Type 052C and Type 052D, building upon its growing experience and talent pool.

A People’s Daily diagram shows a 055 destroyer in a carrier strike group.

In the second half of this year, after little more than a decade of development, the navy is set to introduce its Type 055 destroyer. The 055 boasts capabilities that cover air defense, land attacks and anti-missile, anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare.

The 13,000-ton Type 055, hailed as China’s Aegis and categorized by the Pentagon as a cruiser, will be the new flagship of the People’s Liberation Army’s seagoing forces. The first two such destroyers are currently being fitted out at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard, and there are at least four more in the pipeline.

In the case of China’s renovation of the Soviet-built carrier Liaoning, Chinese technicians and seamen spent seven painstaking years working on the craft.

The patience with which the navy set about the retrofitting of the first vessel starkly contrasts with the speed with which the second one reached completion. Initial work commenced at the end of 2013 and a first sea trial was held in May this year.

People gather near the berth of China’s first domestically made aircraft carrier in Dalian. Photo: AP

As the new carrier completed its maiden voyage last month, the PLA announced that the Liaoning strike group had also become combat ready.

Meanwhile, the two-seater version of the carrier-borne J-15 fighter undertook its maiden flight in April, and is expected to be commissioned alongside the newest carrier.

Beijing is now applying the same approach in the research and development of a cutting-edge electromagnetic aircraft launch system. Reports say that tens of thousands of successful launches of J-15s and other warplanes from land-based electromagnetic catapults have already taken place.

The electromagnetic launch system is set to be deployed on the second homemade carrier, which will feature a bigger flight deck.

New, fixed-wing early warning and refueling aircraft are also in development, almost certainly intended for use with the new launching system.

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