Liaoning, the People’s Liberation Army’s solo aircraft carrier in service, has joined her sister ship, the nation’s first domestically built carrier which has yet to be christened, at the Dalian Shipyard since Sunday.
Chinese papers and military buffs are hailing the historic rendezvous of the two seagoing airbases, relishing the picture-perfect occasion of two huge vessels moored alongside each other.
Liaoning is back at her homeport of Dalian in the northeastern Chinese province it is named after for scheduled maintenance as well as R&R for her crew, having spent the majority of the first half of the year at sea. It also led an armada of ships and submarines in April which included a high-profile passage through the Taiwan Strait.
The last time Liaoning was in dry-dock was in May 2014, in the same berth where the Soviet-era vessel was retrofitted. The new homemade carrier is almost a lookalike of the Liaoning with an identical ski-jump bow. It is also moored at the Dalian Shipyard after undergoing its first sea trial earlier this month.
Recent photos indicate the new carrier is undergoing checks below her waterline, with some activity suggesting newer layers of anti-corrosion coating being put on the hull.
Chinese naval experts, however, say the two carriers berthing at the same dockyard at the same time could just be a “coincidence.”
Military observer Song Zhongping told the People’s Daily that once the new carrier goes into service with the PLA, it normally would be dispatched to a region different from the Liaoning’s area of patrol, and the two vessels would hardly sail alongside each other in the future as China claims a large stretch of disputed water where US-led freedom-of-navigation operations are often held.
Some have also questioned if there’s now a “defense void” on China’s offshore fronts, in particular in the South China Sea, given the fact that the US sent in the Higgins, a guided-missile destroyer, and the Antietam, a guided-missile cruiser, last week right after Liaoning sailed out of those waters.
A big navy needs at least three carriers to work in shifts: one berthed for checks, one at sea for training purposes while the third stays combat-ready.
Beijing hastened the construction and delivery of the new carrier, using the experience learned over the many years it took to modernize the Soviet era Liaoning. It wants the new carrier, with a host of new, indigenous technologies, to be fully deployable and combat-ready within two years to supplant the Liaoning, which has to date largely been a training vessel.
China is also set to start building its second domestic carrier – still a conventionally powered one but with a catapult assisted take-off barrier arrested recovery system to do away its curled-up bow – at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard. There is also speculation China is finalizing the design for its first nuclear carrier, though no timetable is known for its construction.