On December 17, 2019 at the sunny beach resort city of Sanya on Hainan Island, China officially commissioned its first homebuilt aircraft carrier into the PLA Navy in a ceremony attended by President Xi Jinping, following more than eighteen months of sea trials. Like her sistership Liaoning, she is named after a province in northeastern China.
The commissioning of the 315-meter long vessel four years after she was laid down in Liaoning province March 2015 by Dalian Shipbuilding is another milestone achievement for the PLA Navy that must be gauged in context: the Chinese carrier remains much less capable than its U.S. Navy counterparts, but serves as a stepping stone to a more powerful force, a point of national prestige, and potentially a platform for expeditionary missions abroad.
Below are five things that stand out about this new vessel:
Shandong is China’s Second Carrier—But the First One to Be Entirely Built at Home
China’s first aircraft carrier, the Type 001 Liaoning was actually rebuilt from the hull of an incomplete Soviet “aircraft-carrying cruiser” called the Varyag. This nomenclature refers to the fact that Varyag was intended to double as a surface combatant with powerful anti-ship missiles, unlike a typical carrier that relies on its onboard aircraft for offensive capability.
In a story that’s as wacky as it sounds, a secret cabal of Chinese military officers put a Chinese basketball star up to buying Varyag from a Ukrainian shipyard under the cover story that the incomplete vessel would be used to serve as a floating casino. Instead, it was radically overhauled and rebuilt into a pure carrier with Chinese hardware.
The Shandong, then, is based on the Varyag—Ukraine transferred the blueprints for the vessel too!—but 100% made in China. That allowed Chinese naval architects to tweak its design to be better optimized for its role in the PLA Navy. Still, it shares basic design elements, such as being conventionally powered by four steam boilers, meaning it has to refuel roughly every six days.