The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is a decades-old vessel whose technology, particularly its diesel-fueled steam propulsion system, is becoming anachronistic in a world of nuclear carriers.

Even though its combat capabilities have been given a big boost after the PLA’s painstaking endeavor to refurbish the carrier, the Soviet-built Liaoning has still been held back by its circumscribed operational radius – 2,500 nautical miles – as its engines are fuel guzzlers.

The Liaoning in Hong Kong Photo: Xinhua
The Liaoning aircraft carrier. Photo: Xinhua

But now the Liaoning will be able to sail much further, tripling its operational radius to as much as 7,500 nautical miles, after the September inauguration of a monster oiler, ammunition and supply ship, the Hulun Lake, flagship of the PLA Navy’s 901-class fast combat support ships.

Naval and Merchant Ships, a Beijing-based military magazine, has revealed more specifications of the Hulun Lake, noting that its 40,000-ton displacement has already made the navy’s eight 25,000-ton 903-class logistics ships look “lightweight.”

The Hulun Lake was tailor-made to refuel the Liaoning at sea, with heightened freeboard, a top cruising speed of 25 knots and a 25,000-ton fuel tank, enough to replenish the Liaoning‘s own tanks for a range that is three times its operational radius.

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The Hulun Lake (left) supplies fuel to a PLA Navy landing ship. Photo: PLA Daily

The Hulun Lake is also capable of carrying 1,800 tons of ammunition in one go, equivalent to 1,200 HHQ-9Bs, an active radar-homing surface-to-air missile with enhanced ultra-low-altitude anti-ship attack capability.

Featuring a stealth design and powerful pumps and enlarged conduits, the Hulun Lake can also supply 400 tons of refrigerated stores – enough to feed the entire crew of the Liaoning for 10 days – as well as 250 tons of other dry stores, at a speed of 40 tons per hour during underway replenishment, PLA Daily reports.

Two hangars for China-made “Super Hornet” heavy transport helicopters with a lifting capacity of 13 tons are located on both ends of the ship, with a large helipad for additional deployment.

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A still from a CCTV program compares the size of the 40,000-ton Hulun Lake (right) with a 25,000-ton 903-class supply ship.

“The Hulun Lake has really cured the weak underbelly of the Liaoning battle group,” said a military observer.

That said, whether the Liaoning and China’s first indigenous carrier, which is nearly ready to launch, can sail in the same league as their US counterparts in oceangoing capabilities depends on how fast the PLA can build more supply ships of the 901 class.

Jane’s Defence Weekly has estimated that the Liaoning may need a full replenishment of fuel and ammunition every three to four days under real combat circumstance, yet a US nuclear carrier doesn’t need conventional fuel at all and its ammo and food restocking can be loosened to once a week.

The conclusion is that the PLA is in urgent need of more monster supply ships like the Hulun Lake, even more so than the US Navy, as the latter boasts a fleet of nuclear-powered super-carriers as well as a network of naval bases and outposts on all continents.