The Shandong, China's first domestically developed aircraft carrier - the country's second overall - set out from shipyard on Tuesday for military exercises, which will reportedly be held in the Bohai Sea in the next 22 days. Experts expect the carrier to integrate with J-15 fighter jets that were newly produced for it, as it continues to establish actual combat capability, and it will hopefully become combat-ready by the end of 2020.
Two combat-ready aircraft carriers will have strategic significance for China to resist military pressure from countries like the US in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea, and potentially from India on China's key maritime transport lanes, experts said.
After a display of fireworks and under the assistance of several tug boats, the Shandong embarked from the Dalian Shipyard in Northeast China's Liaoning Province on Tuesday morning, Hong Kong-based news website wenweipo.com reported on the same day.
The carrier had full-scale models of a J-15 fighter jet and a Z-18 helicopter on its flight deck when it left Dalian, the report said.
The voyage coincided with a notice released by China's Maritime Safety Administration on Monday, which set a navigation restriction in the Bohai Sea from Tuesday to September 22 for an undisclosed military mission.
The restriction zone is in the waters off a Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy Aviation Force base, so putting these factors together, the Shandong's voyage will likely feature integrated training with fighter jets in the sea area, wenweipo.com predicted.
China has been producing new J-15 aircraft carrier-based fighter jets and training new pilots for the Shandong in recent years, and this voyage could see the carrier integrated with those capabilities as a crucial part of its combat preparedness, a Chinese military expert who requested anonymity told the Global Times on Tuesday.
According to photos released by the Shenyang Aircraft Co under the Aviation Industry Corp of China (AVIC), the manufacturer of the J-15, on its website in February, the company was producing new J-15s at that time. A J-15 under assembly was seen getting new, green priming paint instead of the previous yellow one, which indicated that it features a new type of anti-corrosion material for better performance at sea, reports said then.
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie told the Global Times on Tuesday that after the latest exercise, it will not take the Shandong long to become combat capable, thanks to experience garnered on the country's first carrier, the Liaoning.
Hopefully within this year, the Shandong will conduct another training session, which will eventually give it the basis for initial combat capability, Li predicted.