China’s new aircraft carrier may start sea trials this week, source says

Liaoning maritime authorities have cordoned off areas in the northeast 

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 April, 2018, 7:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 April, 2018, 9:25am

China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier is expected to start sea trials imminently, a source close to the navy said, amid what analysts say is growing external pressure to push forward its development.

The Type 001A aircraft carrier’s maiden sea trial could take place this week, possibly coinciding with the PLA Navy’s 69th anniversary on Monday depending on weather and ocean conditions, according to the source.

The Liaoning Maritime Safety Administration announced on Friday that three areas in the northeastern Bohai and Yellow Sea would be cordoned off for military activities from April 20 to 28. The restricted areas are close to the shipyard in Liaoning province where the new carrier is being built.

A main engine run was conducted on Tuesday, indicating sea trials were about to start, said another source who witnessed the engine test.

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The aircraft carrier is expected to enter service later this year, 12 months ahead of schedule, which one naval expert put down to a growing sense of urgency as rivalry between China and the United States intensifies.

Another military source told the South China Morning Post earlier that the trial would test the ship’s basic functions, including power, damage control and radar and communication systems, as well as checking for leakage.

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But the carrier is not expected to sail far on its first voyage, the source said, and it may just stay within Bohai Bay.

Liu Zheng, chairman of Dalian Shipbuilding Industry, confirmed last month that the new aircraft carrier was ready to start sea trials.

The 70,000-tonne Type 001A was launched in April last year and is expected to join the navy as early as the end of this year, well before the original target of 2019.

The new warship is an upgrade to the Type 001 Liaoning, China’s only operational aircraft carrier, a retrofitted Soviet-era Admiral Kuznetsov-class multi-role vessel.

But the source close to the navy said it was far “too early to estimate” when the new ship would be combat-ready.

It took nearly six years for the Liaoning to become a fully combat-ready battleship after it joined the navy in 2012, mainly because it lacked adequately trained crew members and commanders.

The Liaoning conducted intensive ocean drills last week, similar to those carried out by the US Navy, after taking part in the PLA’s biggest-ever naval parade off the coast of Hainan Island in the South China Sea.

It also passed through waters south of Taiwan on its way to carry out the military exercises in the Western Pacific, the latest in a series of drills that self-ruled Taiwan has criticised as “intimidation”. 

The Liaoning is mainly used as a training vessel, but the new Type 001A – which will be able to carry up to 35 aircraft and will weigh 70,000 tonnes when fully loaded – is expected to be combat-ready.

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“There is growing external pressure for China to speed up the development of its aircraft carrier so that it is the main force of the navy, especially since the US has increased its deployment in Asia,” said Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. 

“But China is still 10 to 20 years behind the US in this competition.”

The latest US carrier – the USS Gerald R Ford – weighs roughly 100,000 tonnes and can hold more than 75 aircraft.