How many aircraft carriers will China build?

The article explores the ongoing development of China’s naval capabilities and poses the question: How many aircraft carriers will China build? This article looks at a country’s aircraft carrier fleet – what it is now, what it could be in the future, and how it compares to other countries. It also considers how new technology is changing the game, and what all this means for global politics and competition between nations. 

China has three aircraft carriers: the Liaoning, the Shandong and the Fujian. Each of these vessels has represented a significant advance over its predecessor, although none are equipped with nuclear propulsion.

Media in China have flagged the possible inclusion of a new aircraft carrier in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) fleet, marking the fourth in its naval arsenal.

Publications such as the South China Morning Post, Global Times and Hong Kong Commercial Daily have suggested the development of this fourth vessel, reflecting China’s continued maritime expansion.

Currently, China has three aircraft carriers: the Liaoning, the Shandong and the Fujian. Each of these vessels has represented a significant advance over its predecessor, although none are equipped with nuclear propulsion.

The ability to operate for extended periods without refueling sets nuclear aircraft carriers apart, an advantage that current Chinese ships lack. By comparison, the US Navy operates 11 large nuclear aircraft carriers, a standard that China aims to achieve to solidify its global maritime presence.

China’s naval power and its push towards maritime parity

How many aircraft carriers will China build?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China acquired the Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier Varyag, which, after extensive modernization, was reintroduced as the Liaoning in 2011. Originally intended for training, the Liaoning adopted a combat role in 2019, transforming into a true maritime bastion.

This aircraft carrier, classified as Type 001, has undergone multiple technological upgrades, including the implementation of a Type 348 electronically scanned array radar and the Sea Eagle radar system, in addition to a robust defense system comprised of the Type close-in weapons system. 1130 and the HQ-10 missile system.

Shandong aircraft carrier deployment and technological advancement

How many aircraft carriers will China build?
A Chinese aircraft carrier on the high seas. Image credit: Chinese Internet.

The Shandong, the Type 002, marked a milestone as the first aircraft carrier built entirely in China and launched in 2017. Information about this ship was kept confidential until well into its construction phase, although satellite images confirmed its development.

It officially entered service in 2019, demonstrating its operational capability at the 2023 United Sharp Sword military exercises, a testament to China’s growing naval power and its determination to expand its influence in international waters.

Fujian: Vanguard of Chinese naval innovation

The newest addition to the PLA Navy’s aircraft carrier fleet is the Fujian, classified as a Type 003 warship.

This colossus is distinguished by being the first in the Chinese arsenal to dispense with the traditional ski ramp, opting instead for an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), a technology it shares with the advanced Ford-class aircraft carriers of the USA.

This feature places Fujian in a prominent position, being the first Chinese aircraft carrier capable of supporting catapult-assisted takeoffs, which significantly increases its operational capabilities compared to its predecessors.

Launched in 2022, Fujian symbolizes the peak of China’s naval modernization efforts, positioning itself as the flagship of the Chinese fleet in terms of technology and capabilities.

A nuclear future on the Chinese maritime horizon

How many aircraft carriers will China build?
Despite its advanced technology, the Fujian still relies on conventional propulsion, unlike the US Nimitz- and Ford-class fleets that operate on nuclear systems.

The eventual introduction of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier into the PLAN fleet would not only represent a considerable technological advance for China but would also mark a significant milestone in naval expansion under Xi Jinping’s leadership.

The increase in Chinese military power raises notable concerns in the context of growing tensions between Washington and Beijing. However, even if China manages to introduce a nuclear aircraft carrier to its fleet, the United States Navy maintains considerable quantitative superiority in terms of aircraft carriers.

To challenge this supremacy, China would need to not only match the technology and capabilities of American ships but also substantially expand its number of operational units.