China wants to turn its training aircraft carrier into a combat ship — here's how it stacks up against US carriers

  • China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was declared “combat ready” in 2016 but has primarily served as a training vessel.
  • The ship’s executive officer told Chinese media that the carrier is being upgraded and transformed to serve in a combat role.
  • Were it to find itself in combat, it could be pitted against other regional navies or even the US Navy, which has its own carriers regularly operating in the area.
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China is trying to transform its first aircraft carrier, currently a training vessel, into a combat ship ready to wage war, a senior officer has revealed.

Lu Qianqiang, the Liaoning’s executive officer, told state-run broadcaster CCTV that ship is currently being upgraded to serve in a combat role, making it more than just a training tool as China strives to become a world-class naval power with a modern carrier force, the Global Times reported.


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The Liaoning, China’s only operational carrier, is a Soviet heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser that China purchased and refitted. It was officially commissioned into the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in 2012. Beijing is believed to be close to commissioning its first domestically produced carrier, and a third flat top is apparently in the works.

The first Chinese carrier was used to design the country’s second carrier – which resembles the Liaoning and is designated Type 001A, though it has no official name – and was expected to serve as a training vessel for carrier operations.

Now China wants to turn the Liaoning, which was technically declared “combat ready” in 2016, into a combat vessel.

Lu Qiangqiang, an executive officer aboard the Liaoning, told Chinese media that the PLAN had upgraded the arresting cables and arresting nets, improved the anti-jamming capabilities of the superstructure, enlarged the flight control tower, optimised the propulsion and power systems, and made changes to the flight deck.

“These changes will definitely help us make the best of the ship, improve our training protocols and boost our combat capability even further,” Lu explained. “The Liaoning is shifting from a training and test ship to a combat ship. I believe this process is going faster and faster, and we will achieve our goal very soon.”

This would be a big change for the Liaoning. Here is how the Chinese ship compares with US carriers.


The Liaoning, originally known as the Varyag, is about 1,000 feet long and displaces about 60,000 tons fully loaded. It is the sister ship of Russia’s disappointing Admiral Kuznetsov carrier.

Russia is reportedly thinking about putting the Kuznetsov out of its misery.


The US Navy’s Nimitz- and Ford-class carriers are over 1,000 feet long and displace roughly 100,000 tons.


The Liaoning is diesel-powered, and the diesel-fuelled steam turbine power plants are inefficient and reduce the speed and service life of the carrier. Its top speed is believed to be somewhere between 20 knots and 30 knots. The range is apparently limited to a few thousand miles.


The US Navy’s aircraft carriers are powered by onboard nuclear reactors. These ships have speeds in excess of 30 knots and an unlimited range.

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Harry Andrew D. Gordon/ReleasedThe USS Enterprise underway with the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Liaoning uses ski jump-assisted short takeoff but arrested recovery (STOBAR) launch systems, which are harder on the aircraft and can only launch planes running at about 60,000 pounds. That means increased strain on the aircraft, reduced sorties, less fuel, reduced operational range, fewer armaments, and reduced combat capability.


US carriers use more effective steam or electromagnetic catapult-assisted takeoff but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) launch systems designed to launch much heavier aircraft.

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Ignacio D. Perez/ReleasedF/A-18 Hornets over the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis.

The Liaoning has an air wing consisting of 24 Sheyang J-15 fighter jets. There is the possibility that China may replace the fourth-generation J-15s with fifth-generation J-31s in the future.


The US Navy’s Nimitz-class carriers can carry a larger air wing consisting of as many as 55 fixed-wing aircraft. The primary fighter is the F/A-18, but the US is in the process of arming carriers with the new fifth-generation F-35Cs.

US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Lauren K. JenningsAn F/A-18E Super Hornet, assigned to the “Argonauts” of Strike Fighter Squadron 147, launches off the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz.

The Liaoning is armed with a 3D air/surface search radar over the main mast, four multifunctional active-phased array radar panels, a FL-3000 naval missile system, a Type 1030 close-in weapons system, and anti-submarine warfare rocket launchers.


US carriers have a number of advanced radar systems, RIM-7 Sea Sparrow Missiles, Phalanx close-in weapons systems, and Rolling Airframe Missiles.

US NavyThe Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln launches a Rolling Airframe Missile during combat system ship qualification trials.

The Liaoning does not appear to have any special armour or protective covering, although it is difficult to know for sure.


US carriers have Kevlar covering vital spaces, like critical machinery and weapons-storage areas. In addition to extra armoring, US carriers are compartmentalized and have redundant systems to ensure they can take a hit.

US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Ricardo R. GuzmanThe US Navy aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the Pacific Ocean during a routine patrol.


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“If you put the two side by side, obviously the US has huge advantages,” Matthew Funaiole, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Business Insider. But Chinese carriers are rapidly improving with each new ship.

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