It has been seen as a symbol of national prestige, one that could be used as a potential platform for expeditionary missions abroad.
And it is named after China’s Shandong Province.
Military analysts have suggested that the carrier — which was delivered to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in December at the naval port in Sanya — remains much less capable than its US Navy counterparts, but it serves as a stepping stone to more powerful carriers.
It is China’s second aircraft carrier, but its first carrier, the Type 001 Liaoning was rebuilt from the hull of the incomplete Soviet-era “aircraft-carrying cruiser” Varyag.
The Shandong had left her home port of Dalian in late May on her maiden voyage for training since being commissioned five months ago.
According to Business Insider, Li Yongxuan, the vice captain of the Shandong aircraft carrier, told CCTV that the Shandong urgently needed to develop its capabilities.
“We need to integrate the Shandong aircraft carrier combat group into the overall combat system as early as possible. And we will strive to make our aircraft carrier into a combat-ready and triumphant ship,” Li told the broadcaster.
CCTV’s broadcast footage showing seven J-15 fighter jets on board the carrier and footage of take-off and landing practice.
Chinese defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang told a press briefing on Friday: “The purpose of this training is to test the performance of weapons and equipment, improve the level of aircraft carrier training, and further enhance the troops’ ability to perform missions and tasks.”
While domestically built, the 55,000-ton Shandong is still a modified version of the Liaoning, which means it shares not only a similar layout but also many of the limitations, The National Interest reported.
The carrier lacks catapults and instead launches planes via a bow-mounted ramp—something that significantly limits the weight of the aircraft as well as how much weaponry and even fuel that those planes can carry.
The Shandong does have design improvements that will enable it to embark and operate a larger air wing of 40 aircraft, including 36 fighters, The National Interest reported.
China’s primarily carrier-based fighter is the J-15 Flying Shark, an aircraft that is derived from the Russian Su-33 Flanker aircraft design.
The multirole fighter jet, which entered service in 2015 and has been compared to the US Navy’s two-seat FA-18 Super Hornet, was designed to operate from carriers equipped with a ski ramp rather than from a catapult.
According to Navy Recognition, China has also reportedly announced plans to develop a carrier-capable variant of its J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter and/or a carrier-capable variant of its FC-31 fifth-generation stealth fighter to complement or succeed the J-15 on catapult-equipped Chinese carriers.
The J-20 is Chinese flagship stealth fighter, and its weapon systems were spotlighted at the 2018 Zhuhai Airshow, while the FC-31 is noted for relying on design elements from other countries fighter programs—notably the United States’ F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The PLAN has also announced that it may deploy both the Shandong and the Liaonging for the first in exercises to be conducted this summer — but both carriers conducted combat readiness last month in the Yellow Sea.
China’s ambitions in the disputed South China Sea have led to a series of confrontations in recent years with rival claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines, while the US Navy has also stepped up its activities in the region in what it describes as freedom of navigation operations.
Zhou Chenming, a Beijing-based military expert, said the sea trials would help the carrier to boost its combat capabilities, Business Insider reported.
“China is confronted with a deteriorating situation especially in surrounding seas. A pair of aircraft carriers can give Beijing a greater deterrent as the Chinese military gradually sails further from its shores,” Zhou said.