Asia’s aircraft carriers compared including a 3D look at China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) launched “ChinaPower,” an immersive micro-website that offers never-before-seen features exploring China’s lone aircraft carrier in 3D, visualizes key economic and demographic data, and measures key social factors among other indicators of Chinese power.

“China’s emergence as a global power has far reaching implications for countries around the world,” said Bonnie Glaser, CSIS Senior Adviser for Asia and Director of the CSIS China Power Project. “Despite the growing interest in China, the nature of China’s rise is often misunderstood. ChinaPower dissects and analyzes China’s growing role on the international stage.”

With the most up-to-date research, interactive graphics, expert analysis and data collection, ChinaPower is a regularly updated site that addresses critical questions surrounding China’s rise.

ChinaPower is the result of a collaboration between the CSIS China Power Project, led by Bonnie Glaser, and the CSIS iDeas Lab—CSIS’s in-house multimedia and web production studio.

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, into service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) attracted considerable attention. It was 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 the Chinese have made significant progress in developing their carrier program, it will be several years before a carrier air regiment is fully integrated into the PLAN.

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 60,000 tons — over 30,000 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 15,000 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 45 percent heavier and 30 meters longer. The Ronald Reagan weighs 97,000 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.

China’s carrier based jet is the J-15. 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. By comparison, the USS Ronald Reagan can launch an aircraft with a maximum takeoff weight of 100,000 pounds. It has recently been confirmed that China is building a second carrier that will be built entirely with Chinese designs and technology. China’s second carrier will also use a ski jump for takeoff