The Liaoning, China’s only aircraft carrier currently in service, has left its maintenance bay at the Dalian Shipyard after reportedly undergoing a midlife refit almost seven years after its commission in 2012.

Photos posted on social media showed the carrier being towed from Dalian Shipyard amid a fireworks display. The vessel has been moored there for more than six months to undergo extensive modification works.

It remains to be seen whether the Liaoning‘s latest voyage will be another sea trial in the nearby Bohai Sea or if it might head south to resume normal training duties and other operational responsibilities with the Chinese Navy.

Previous reports speculated that People’s Liberation Army technicians could have experimented with the installation of prototype electromagnetic catapults on the Liaoning. This might turn an old vessel built in the mid 1980s in the Soviet Ukraine into a test bed for cutting-edge technologies to boost the speed and payloads of fighters jetting off from its flight deck.

J-15 fighters are seen on the Liaoning’s flight deck. Photo: CGTN screen grab
A file photo shows the Liaoning in Hong Kong waters in July 2017. Photo: AFP

But experts say that turning the theoretical advantages of the electromagnetic aircraft launching system into reality – on a floating, pitching deck in the middle of the sea – has proven to be troublesome even for the US Navy on its Ford-class supercarrier.

Also, outfitted with a suspect steam propulsion powerplant and performance-limiting bow ramp, the 58,600-ton Liaoning is unlikely to venture far from shore or to send her lightly-loaded J-15 fighters – copycats of Russia’s Sukhois – into serious combat. In a rare fit of critical pique, Chinese state media has denounced the carrier-borne J-15 as “flopping fish”.

The Global Times also reported that the Liaoning’s lookalike sister ship, the homemade Type 001A carrier, started its engine and cleaned its deck during the past weekend, which are signs that it could soon set out for its fifth sea trial.

Liaoning’s provincial maritime authority has in the meantime gazetted a no-entry zone in the Yellow Sea off Dalian for a military exercise until March 5, though it is unknown if the cordoned off area was designated for the Liaoning, the Type 001A, or both.

Some observers believe that the zone might see the two carriers sail side by side, conducting formation and communications drills.

Read more: Aging PLA carrier may get high-tech upgrade