China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy on December 19th deployed its largest aircraft carrier the Shandong for “realistic combat oriented drills” in the South China Sea, with the possibility of a joint dual carrier strike group subsequently raised as the service’s two largest warships were out a sea simultaneously. The Shandong’s sister ship, the carrier Liaoning, was deployed for drills in the Pacific Ocean at the time, although the two have never held exercises together. Both ships were based on the Soviet Kuznetsov Class carrier design, with the oldest being the Russian Navy’s sole carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov, although both Chinese ships are considerably more modern and capable than those launched from the USSR’s Black Sea Shipyard with far more modern propulsion systems, aircraft, electronics, sensors and defence systems. The Liaoning and Shandong were commissioned in 2012 and 2019 respectively, and were the first carriers to enter service in the PLA Navy. Three lighter assault carriers, the Type 075 Class ships, have also been launched and are expected to carry helicopters and possibly vertical landing-capable fighter jets, while two much heavier supercarriers are also currently under construction.
The Liaoning and Shandong both rely on ski jump launch systems, and both deploy variants of the J-15 Flying Shark carrier based heavyweight fighter. This could allow the ships to accommodate one another’s aircraft during a joint operation or exercise, although such interoperability will not extend to other carrier variants with the two ships expected to be China’s only carriers commissioned with a ski jump system due to the advantages offered by more advanced electromagnetic catapult systems. The Shandong’s deployment for drills came less than a week after a new variant of the J-15 was first sighted, thought to be called the J-15B, which alongside a more modern design was built to be accommodated by future carriers with catapult systems rather than ski jumps. Regarding the possibility of joint exercises between the Liaoning and Shandong, this was raised by China’s Global Times state media outlet which cited Beijing-based military expert Wei Dongxu. Wei stated that joint operations by the Liaoning and Shandong would likely occur in the near future. The Liaoning was reported to be escorted bye two of China’s top destroyers, namely a Type 055 and a Type 052D class ship the former which is widely considered the most capable in the world, as well as a Type 054A frigate and a Type 901 comprehensive supply ship. A strike group of two carriers would likely be escorted by two or more of China’s new generation of destroyers. This development follows the announcement of more frequent future PLA aircraft carrier operations in May.