The Liaoning is the People’s Liberation Army’s sole operational aircraft carrier at present, but Beijing plans to add three more carriers to the PLA naval fleet by 2025 and may also deploy three amphibious assault ships capable of carrying combat aircraft.

That is the observation by Abraham Ait, a military analyst and founder of Military Watch Magazine, who noted in The Diplomat that following the 2012 launch of the Liaoning, three new carriers could already be in various stages of testing or construction.

China’s first homemade carrier is now undergoing sea trials after its maiden voyage in May. It was modeled after the somewhat antiquated Soviet-built Liaoning and is only referred to as Type 001A.

On Monday, China’s state news agency Xinhua, on its official WeChat page, confirmed for the first time that “a new type of carrier” was taking shape at a dock. The third Chinese sea-going airbase, conventionally powered, was widely rumored to have done away with a curved-up bow for a flattop design and would be equipped with electromagnetic catapults to deploy heavier and better-armed fighters as well as fix-wing, carrier-based early warning aircraft.

A collage of the two Chinese carriers, Liaoning and her sister ship. Photos: Weibo
A collage of the two Chinese carriers, Liaoning (above) and her sister ship, Type 001A. Photos: Weibo

Ait is of the view that Beijing would be on schedule to have four carriers by 2025 as the PLA vessels are growing quickly in both sophistication and size.

“Combined with the rapid growth in the country’s destroyer fleet and the commissioning of a lethal new destroyer class, the Type 055, China’s ability to project power at sea and contest dominance of the contested and strategically vital South and East China seas appears to be growing apace,” he argues.

Citing unnamed sources, Ait added that there was a considerable chance that a lower profile defense program now underway may see the number of Chinese carriers of various sizes rise to seven by 2025.

That was because Chinese shipbuilders had already started the construction of three amphibious assault ships – 40,000-ton warships approximately the size of the French carrier Charles de Gaulle and bearing a resemblance to the US Navy’s America and Wasp-class amphibious assault ships. These ships would be big enough to deploy fixed-wing, short take-off vertical-landing combat aircraft.

Purpose-built F-35B and other fighters featuring short take-off vertical-landing capabilities are deployable on these amphibious assault ships, allowing them to effectively function as mini-carriers.

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A computer-gendered rendering of what is believed to be the PLA’s Type 075 amphibious assault ship. Photo: Weibo

Ait points out that the PLA’s Type 075 assault ships, all of which are expected to be in service by 2025 with each carrying up to 30 planes, will function as quasi-carriers, thus bringing the size of the Chinese Navy’s carrier fleet up to seven by the mid-2020s.

As for the development of the Chinese version of the F-35B, China can draw on Russia’s experience in designing short take-off vertical-landing aircraft.

With China’s defense budget growing by more than 7% per year, almost in line with the country’s economic growth, the Chinese navy has room to induct more carriers, both assault ships and conventional larger vessels, after 2025.

“The year 2025 could well thus mark a considerable turning point in the Pacific balance of power, providing the US Navy with the first real challenge to the dominance of its carrier strike groups in Asia since the sinking of the Imperial Japanese supercarrier Shinano in 1944, ” concluded Ait.

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