Replenishment issues may emerge as a big drag on the combat capabilities of China’s second aircraft carrier, known only as “Type 001A”, which is now in its final stage of trials and tweaks before going into service, likely by the end of this year.

The homemade carrier, which runs on marine fuel, is modeled on its predecessor, the Soviet-built Liaoning, and it has the same basic propulsion and powertrain systems as her sister ship.

As with the Liaoning and other Kuznetsovclass vessels from the Soviet era, the new carrier will need to store around 13,000 metric tons of marine fuel for its operations, plus the six to eight guided missile destroyers and corvettes that form a larger combat group.

A mission to replenish the carrier’s tanks will be required whenever a third of the total fuel consignment is consumed, as seen in the People’s Liberation Army’s logistics arrangement for its anti-pirate deployment in the Gulf of Aden, where it escorts Chinese merchant ships, according to the Kanwa Defense Review.

The second carrier will consume 1,100 tons of fuel per day when cruising at 20 knots (37 kilometers an hour), and about 400 tons more during active combat. The J-15 fighter squadron aboard the carrier will also need adequate aerial fuel supply, as well as other lubricating oils.

When the new carrier is in the high seas, the 23,000-ton Type 903 oiler, ammunition and supply ship will be the main source of its fuel, food and other supplies. Yet this capacity constraint means the navy would be hard put to replenish the entire carrier group for more than two rounds.

Observers say that like the Liaoning, the Type 001A group can only last at sea for six days between each refill, a fraction of the time of the US Navy’s nuclear-powered flattops, which do not need fuel for propulsion.

A satellite image shows the 50,000-ton Hulun Lake supply ship and the Liaoning carrier. Photo: Weibo
The Hulun Lake supply ship. Photo: Xinhua

As a stop-gap measure before China can launch its own nuclear carriers in the distant future,  the Guangzhou Shipyard under China State Shipbuilding Corp has already been revving up the construction of the 50,000-ton Type 901 fast combat support ships, with the first two of the class already entered into service.

South China Sea bases

It has also been revealed that Type 001A will primarily be assigned to patrol the South China Sea from its homeport of Yulin, in Sanya, on the strategically-located Hainan Island, where berths for the two carriers are nearing completion.

Another carrier base is also taking shape offshore in the heart of the hotly-contested waters, on Fiery Cross Reef, aka Northwest Investigator Reef and Yongshu Reef, just west of the Spratly Islands, where China’s frenetic reclamation has seen huge chunks of land being made from the sea over recent years.

China’s militarization of the atolls there aims to create a “Great wall of Sand”, with replenishment bases for its warships, as the PLA seeks to boost its patrols and territorial claims.

A photo of Fiery Cross Reef, or Yongshu Reef, released by the Chinese military. It will have a berth to service Chinese carriers. Image: PLA Daily

It should take a little over a day for Type 001A to sail there from Sanya at a speed of 20 knots.

The PLA’s first overseas base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, as well as a civil port in Sri Lanka leased by the force, will also be vital supply bases for the Chinese carriers.

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