The entry of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, into service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) attracted considerable attention from both the Chinese press and military observers around the world. For some, the Liaoning was a symbol of China’s global power; for others, it represented a significant first step toward a more muscular and assertive Chinese navy.
Originally built as a “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser” for the Soviet Navy, the ship was laid down as the Riga and renamed the Varyag in 1990. A Chinese travel agency purchased the unfinished hull in 1998, and three years later the ship was towed from the Ukraine to China, where it underwent extensive modernization of its hull, radar, and electronics systems. After years of refits, the Liaoning was commissioned into the PLAN in September 2012 as a training ship unassigned to any of the Navy’s three major fleets. Two months after the ship was commissioned, the PLAN conducted its first carrier-based takeoff and landings.
Although it might be several years before a carrier air regiment is fully integrated into the PLAN, it was reported in November 2016 that the Liaoning is now combat ready. In mid-December 2016, China staged the first live-fire drills involving the Liaoning. Since September 2018, the carrier has been undergoing its first major refitting. Reports indicate that the command center – or “island” – is being upgraded.
When one considers the respective capabilities of aircraft carriers, tonnage and deck-side size are important indicators for the amount of stores, munitions, and aircraft a carrier can bring to a fight. The Liaoning is by no means a small ship, but it is far from the largest or most capable carrier in the Asia-Pacific. The Liaoning displaces roughly 66,000 tons (60,000 metric tons) — roughly 39,000 tons more than the Japanese helicopter destroyer Izumo — and is nearly 60 meters longer. The Liaoning also boasts a size advantage over the Soviet-built Indian carrier Vikramaditya, with a deck 20 meters longer and weighing approximately 17,000 tons more.
The Liaoning’s size falls well below the U.S. Nimitz-class carrier USS Ronald Reagan currently stationed with the U.S. Seventh Fleet in Japan, the latter being over 60 percent heavier and 30 meters longer . The Ronald Reagan weighs 97,000 tons (88,000 metric tons) fully loaded and spans 333 meters long, far outsizing the Liaoning. The numbers bear out the fact that the Liaoning is neither a lightweight nor a supercarrier like the USS Ronald Reagan.
The Liaoning’s otherwise middleweight size belies its limited capabilities. Higher speed means faster time to target and improved ability to outrun potential threats, but the Liaoning’s steam turbine power plant limits its top speed. Notably, the Soviet power plant upon which its propulsion is likely based suffered from poor design and maintenance and may limit the Liaoning to a typical speed of around 20 knots.1
These figures are on par with the Indian Vikramaditya, but likely well below the 30-plus-knot top speed of the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan. Nimitz-class aircraft carriers generate considerably more power from their nuclear reactors and only require one midlife refueling during their approximately 50-year service life. The USS Gerald R. Ford is also capable of exceeding 30 knots, and carries newly designed nuclear reactors that are three times more powerful than that of its predecessors.
The Liaoning’s air wing represents a significant leap in air capability for the PLAN, but its inherent capability is limited much like the carrier itself. The aircraft aboard the Liaoning are capable and advanced, but remain restricted primarily by the ship’s aircraft-launching system and relatively insufficient amount of personnel training.
While the Liaoning’s air wing of 24 Shenyang J-15 multirole fighters is larger and more capable than the antisubmarine helicopters embarked aboard the Japanese Izumo, it falls well short of Ronald Reagan’s over 55 fixed-wing aircraft.2 The fixed-wing aircraft aboard the Liaoning, although advanced, are limited in both range and endurance. The J-15 aircraft are Chinese-modified variants of the Russian fourth-generation Sukhoi Su-33. Fourth-generation fighters boast digital flight avionics and advanced radars that represent a significant improvement over the analog systems of third-generation aircraft, but lack the low-observable stealth technology of fifth-generation fighter aircraft like the American F-35C.
Advanced equipment notwithstanding, the J-15 is limited in range and payload by the Liaoning’s lack of an aircraft catapult. The Liaoning’s aircraft-launching system relies upon a ski jump-style deck instead of the steam catapults used by the United States and France, forcing the aircraft to expend considerable internal fuel during takeoff and thereby severely curtailing its payload. For instance, analysts estimate that the maximum takeoff weight for a J-15 from the Liaoning would be limited to approximately 62,000 pounds.3 By comparison, the USS Ronald Reagan can launch an aircraft with a maximum takeoff weight of 100,000 pounds.4 China’s second aircraft carrier, the Type 001A, was built entirely with Chinese designs and technology. It began sea trials on May 13th, 2018, and will also use a ski jump for takeoff. To learn more about the Type 001A, check out our detailed breakdown.