China finishing first domestic CV-17 aircraft carrier and preparing catapults for next CV-18 carrier

The second PLAN aircraft carrier, CV-17 is in advanced stages of construction at Dalian Shipbuilding in northeastern China. It will be the first aircraft carrier built entirely in China. The Liaoning was purchased from the Ukraine in the late 1990s and towed to China for an extensive rebuild.

The CV-17 has a somewhat larger displacement than the CV-16 Liaoning. It has greater internal hanger space for aircraft stowage below deck, and a larger island.

Located on the starboard side of the flight deck, in similar orientation as that on the Liaoning, the island of the CV-17 is substantially larger. Analysis of the new island structure, which was constructed in two modules before attachment to the vessel due to its size, seems to suggest a more advanced communications equipment suite and updated Type 346A active phased array radar (APAR).

The Type 346A radar can be found on the Type 052D destroyers of the PLAN, and is most likely to be fitted on the Type 055 Destroyers currently under construction. By contrast, the Liaoning is equipped with an earlier Type 346 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. Photographs of the mock-up island located in Wuhan, which is used for training and orientation of naval crews, support this hypothesis.

The construction on the northeastern corner of the Huangdicun Airbase suggests two land based catapult launch systems (for training and testing). Although they appear slightly different from above, it is impossible to confirm if they are of the convention steam driven design, or if one is an electro-magnetic catapult, as suggested by a number of analysts.

The launch bar can clearly be seen attached to the nose landing gear of both aircraft. The arrestor hook, used in arrested recovery can also be clearly viewed on both aircraft, though more clearly on the aircraft on the left.

It is obvious that Chinese naval aviators will begin practicing CATOBAR operations at Huangdicun Airbase in the immediate future, most likely beginning in the first or second quarter of 2017. This is a logical step along the way to preparing an air wing skilled in such operations, as well as the necessary handlers, directors, and hook runners required to successfully and safely conduct catapult assisted launches on a modern aircraft carrier.

The third chinese aircraft carrier CV-18 will gain the advantages of greater range and weapons load-out for its strike wing by using catapult launch. It will also allow for the use of fixed-wing anti-submarine (ASW) aircraft and tactical airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft. The PLAN’s current reliance on helicopter borne ASW and AEW is a shortcoming that must be resolved.

The CV-18 is under construction at the Jiangnan Shipyard.

In September 2016, images of an upgraded J-15, the “J-15A”, emerged on the Internet, showing significant upgrades to its engines and flight performance. The plane makes use of domestically produced WS-10H turbofan engines, distinguished by a squarish, silver afterburner nozzle. While some J-15 prototypes were fitted with WS-10 turbofan engines, all production J-15s presently operating off the Liaoning aircraft carrier use the Russian AL-31 turbofan (which has a dark-colored afterburner nozzle). If future J-15As use the WS-10H as a power plant, it would indicate a triumph for China’s emerging aviation engine industry, which has long been a weakness. Another likely upgrade is the installation of an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, which has improved resolution, multi-target ability, and resistance to jamming.

The J-15 is derived from the Russian Su-33

This fan art of the current and next five Chinese aircraft carriers is actually based off of models from an official PLAN exhibition in 2014. It shows the Liaoning, the under-construction CV-17, and the next four catapult-equipped aircraft carriers (conventionally powered CV-18 and CV-19, and nuclear powered CV-20 and CV-21). Needless to say, despite their official inspirations, future Chinese aircraft carriers could differ in many ways from these drawings.