Beijing has come a long way since it first landed a jet fighter aboard what was originally HMAS Melbourne in 1987.

The former Australian aircraft carrier had been sold for scrap. But it proved a source of valuable technical intelligence for an ambitious Chinese military.

China surprised the world again with the unveiling of its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, in 2012.

A PLA Navy fleet including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, submarines, vessels and fighter jets take part in a review in the South China Sea. Photo / Getty Images
A PLA Navy fleet including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, submarines, vessels and fighter jets take part in a review in the South China Sea. Photo / Getty Images

It had been bought from Ukraine in 1998.

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It was supposed to have been turned into a casino.

Instead, it emerged as a fully armed and operational warship.

The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been experimenting with it ever since, developing a feel for the strengths and weaknesses of carrier warfare.

Meanwhile, it's been busy building another.

Today, tugboats have been seen moving the ship from its wharf in preparation for its first independently powered foray at sea.

This ship, so far known only as Type 001A (CV-17), is a reverse-engineered and somewhat modified version of the Soviet-built Liaoning.

Its hull was launched at the Dalian Shipyard in April last year. It's since been undergoing fit-out. It has also been subject to a series of harbourside tests and trials.

The ship is believed to be headed towards a designated testing zone in the Bohai Sea, which has been declared a 'no go zone' until April 28.

"The first sea trials of China's second aircraft carrier, built at the Dalian shipyard, are likely to take place in the Bohai Sea and Yellow Sea to test its power and design," Song Zhongping, a military expert and TV commentator, told the state-operated Global Times.

It's an event that has military analysts in Japan, all of South East Asia, India, the United States — and Australia — sitting up and taking notice.

It means China now has two armed and operational aircraft carriers capable of projecting firepower far beyond its borders. It's an event that further changes the balance of power in its favour.

Tugboats are seen moving China's new, home-built, aircraft carrier - known as Type 001A (CV-17) - away from its dock in preparation for its first at-sea tests. Photo / Supplied
Tugboats are seen moving China's new, home-built, aircraft carrier - known as Type 001A (CV-17) - away from its dock in preparation for its first at-sea tests. Photo / Supplied

Meanwhile, Beijing's building two more.

Work on aircraft carrier Type 002 resumed in May last year. It's also believed first metal was cut for the construction of Type 003 in December.

TYPE 001A (CV-17)

International observers had been keenly examining photographs and satellite images of China's first home-built aircraft carrier as it was being assembled.

Everything about the ship was a tightly held secret.

We don't know when work began on the project. We don't know when the design was finalised. We didn't know when construction began.

We still don't know the ship's name.

But, during the recent Communist Party Two Sessions gathering which installed Xi Jinping as President-for-life, Yuan Maorong, an NPC deputy from East China's Zhejiang Province, suggested naming the carrier "Wei Wen", after a military general from the Three Kingdoms period (AD 184/220-280) who landed on the island of Taiwan.

If true, it's an ominous sign of things to come.

Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy naval infantry soldiers take part in a joint drill by counter-terrorism units. Photo / Getty Images
Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy naval infantry soldiers take part in a joint drill by counter-terrorism units. Photo / Getty Images

But other sources suggest it will be named Shandong, following the tradition set by Liaoning to name the big ships after Chinese provinces.

For all intents and purposes, Type 001A (designated CV-17 by the number on its hull) looks very similar to Liaoning.

But, under the bonnet, things are likely to be very different.

First, it's slightly larger at about 70,000 tons. This may represent extra bunkerage for fuel oil and aviation stores.

It's expected to carry about eight more aircraft than Liaoning, bringing its total to 44. Type 001A's air wing will include between 24 and 32 J-15 multi-role fighters, six anti-submarine helicopters, four early-warning helicopters and two transport helicopters.

The flight deck is somewhat broader over more of its length, reflecting experience from flight operations aboard Liaoning.

The control tower is shorter, allowing more space to park and move aircraft on the deck. It's also fitted out with a new selection of radars, giving it a much more capable self-defence. There also appears to be spare hull capacity to fit new and larger weaponry in the future.

For months the ship has been buried under a thick layer of scaffolding as workers finished fitting the Type 346A radar and sensor plates, as well as splashed on a thick layer of paint.

That's now all gone now.

The ship is said to be ready for its first test drive.

Helping the carrier in the task is a purpose-built liner-like trials ship, intended to house engineers, crew and experts taking part in the trials program.

Named Xu Xiake, the support ship tied up alongside Type 001A in late January, heightening speculation the aircraft carrier was about to go to sea.

The English mouthpiece of state-run news service the People's Daily, Global Times reported in January the ship was due to leave its dock for the first time shortly after the Lunar New Year holiday.

It was an expectation reinforced by state-run news service Xinhua. It said the new carrier was "ready to go" after just a few more finishing touches.

"For sure the speed is impressive, as it has only taken 10 months after the (Type 001A's) dry dock was flooded for the first time in April till the builder's trial and acceptance trial at sea," a Chinese military commentator told the Global Times.

The project's general manager Hu Wenming told China's state television last month that the carrier's propulsion system has been tested and the results were satisfactory.

"The steam turbines of (Type001A) will all start to formally enter the mooring test phase, which will be ahead of our schedule in overall progress," he said. "Before we deliver the ship, we also need to do a variety of systematic tests at sea, including matching tests of carrier-based aircraft, weapon systems and others."

China is confident all will go well.

"All the equipment and devices on the carrier are in the joint debugging stage, and the main engine has been powered ... In 2018, we will present a surprise to the Chinese people," Chairman of the Dailian Shipbuilding Industry Company Liu Zheng has reportedly said.

The Liaoning aircraft carrier is accompanied by navy frigates and submarines conducting an exercises in the South China Sea. Photo / AP
The Liaoning aircraft carrier is accompanied by navy frigates and submarines conducting an exercises in the South China Sea. Photo / AP

Despite her upgraded design, Type 001A still has some significant deficiencies in comparison to US aircraft carriers.

First, it's conventually powered. While the new carrier is reputed to be capable of travelling 25,000km at 14 knots, it's not the indefinite period offered by a nuclear powerplant.

Second, it doesn't have catapults. These enable aircraft to be burdened with much heavier loads of fuel and weaponry as they're flung into the air. Type 001A's "ski ramp", while a help, still means the heavy fighters it carries can only fly with relatively light loads.

And despite the carrier's appearance in open water, Type 001A is not expected to be finally ready for operational service until some time next year.

It will continue to undergo operational testing to ensure equipment and processes are up to the task.

"After the sea trial, which normally takes about 6-12 months, it will be ready for delivery to the PLA Navy, so it's very likely we will see the carrier enlisted by the end of 2018," Beijing military analyst Song Zhongping told local media.

TYPE 002

Exactly when work began on China's third aircraft carrier is uncertain.

Construction seems to have begun in February 2016, though this was may have been suspended while challenges involving new catapult technology were addressed.

Work appears to have resumed in March last year, with its launch now scheduled for 2021 and operational service in 2024.

Type 002 (designated two as it is the second aircraft carrier to be built by China) is said to be very similar to Type 001A at a fundamental level. But it is believed to do away with the distinctive 'ski ramp' at the bow.

A PLA Navy fleet including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, submarines, vessels and fighter jets take part in a review in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo / Getty Images
A PLA Navy fleet including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, submarines, vessels and fighter jets take part in a review in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo / Getty Images

Instead Chinese media boasts the vessels will have ultra-modern electromagnetic catapults.

This is important: China operates heavy J-15 fighters as its naval aircraft. At 33 tons, these are just as big as the US Navy's now retired F-14 Tomcats.

And there are expectations it has already begun to adapt its newest stealth fighter, the J-21, for carrier use.

Getting such big aircraft into the air, especially when fully loaded, is not an easy task.

But carefully controlled slingshots called catapults can accelerate heavily-laden fighters along a flat path until they reach sufficient speed to get airborne. And while China's third aircraft carrier is not expected to be nuclear powered, it is claimed it will generate sufficient electrical power to dive new power-hungry electromagnetic versions of these devices.

The United States' latest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ford already has these. Though they are reportedly dogged with reliability problems.

But China is confidently surging ahead with the technology. In November, PLAN analyst Yin Zhu told Chinese state television service CCTV that 'hundreds' of electromagnetic catapult tests had already been conducted with J-15 fighters on land.

Type 002 is also expected to be much bigger than Type 001A, weighing in at 85,000 tons.

But most of what we know about the next-generation ship can only be classified as speculation.

Hong Kong's South China Morning Post declared earlier this year work on the ship was well underway.

"The shipyard is still working on the carrier's hull, which is expected to take about two years," it quoted onesource as saying. "Building the new carrier will be more complicated and challenging than the other two ships."

A J-15 fighter jet takes off from aircraft carrier Liaoning during a training on July 1, 2017 in China. Photo / Getty Images
A J-15 fighter jet takes off from aircraft carrier Liaoning during a training on July 1, 2017 in China. Photo / Getty Images

Among the few tips to emerge was the size of its control tower.

"The new vessel will have a smaller tower island than the Liaoning and its sister ship because it needs to accommodate China's carrier-based J-15 fighter jets, which are quite large," another source says.

"It has been suggested that they look to Britain's warship, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, which has two small tower islands on the deck. That would create more space for the runway and aircraft, but no final decision has been made yet."

Meanwhile, Beijing has also been ramping up its rhetoric.

"We have complete ownership of the expertise, in terms of design, technology, technique, manufacturing and project management, that is needed to make an advanced carrier," state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corp chairman Liu Zheng told China.org. "We are ready to build larger ones."

FUTURE AMBITIONS

It's also suggested work has begun on China's fourth carrier, Type 003.

A set of 1600 ton gantry cranes were put in place for this purpose at Jiangnan Shipyard, on Shanghai's Changxing Island, late last year, according to Chinese social media news portal Sina.

It comes as Beijing's state-run media touts speculation of the prospect it is nuclear powered.

"I think we can say that China has made major breakthroughs in the implementation of nuclear power on large vessels," Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, told the Global Times late February.

"Each carrier achieves some breakthroughs," Li said. "The second absorbed and consolidated technologies from the first one. The third carrier is able to use an electromagnetic aircraft launch system from the conventional ski-jump system. The fourth may witness breakthroughs in power units."

It's also suggested work has begun on China's fourth carrier, Type 003. Photo / Getty Images
It's also suggested work has begun on China's fourth carrier, Type 003. Photo / Getty Images

China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) earlier this year posted on its website that it plans to "speed up the process of making technological breakthroughs in nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, new-type nuclear submarines, quiet submarines, maritime unmanned intelligent confrontation systems, maritime three-dimensional offensive and defensive systems, and naval warfare comprehensive electronic information systems."

All mention of nuclear aircraft carriers was later removed.

"We must … provide high-quality weapons and equipment for the navy's strategic transformation towards a bluewater force in 2025," CSIC's post said. "China's security environment is undergoing deep changes, and maritime security threats are on the rise."

Beijing media has previously quoted military sources as saying China wants at least six carriers, with four operational aircraft carrier battle groups active by 2030.

The United States currently operates 10 and is in the process of building two more.

"In the future, China's national interests will continue to expand overseas," Li told the Global Times. "Without a fleet of large nuclear-powered vessels, the Chinese navy cannot sail for a long time to faraway waters."

Beijing's in a hurry to gain such an ability.

A recent Global Times article quoted PLA naval expert Li Jie as saying the possession of aircraft carriers would send a message to the world — and Taiwan.

"This displays the high expectations among the Chinese people over solving the Taiwan question, because they want the country to use the first domestically built aircraft carrier as a symbol to announce its determination and ability to achieve this aim, and also send a tough warning signal to the secessionists in Taiwan," he reportedly said.

TheSouth China Morning Post quotes an unnamed military source as saying it was too early to estimate when the new aircraft carriers would be operational.

"There is a long way to go for the Chinese navy to match its US counterpart, which has been used to operating around the clock on missions for decades," he reportedly said.

"The PLA Navy is still studying how to develop a mature operation system for its carrier fighting group, including a functional combination of carrier-based aircraft, escort vessels and submarines and proper crew levels.

"In order to close the gap, there are two to three people working in a single role on the Liaoning — China's sole aircraft carrier training platform."