/ Published December 18, 2019
Figure 1: Xi Jinping inspects CV-17 Shandong. Credit: Xinhua
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) commissioned its first domestically built aircraft carrier, CV-17 Shandong, on 17 December, 2019. The commissioning ceremony occurred at Sanya Comprehensive Support Base (三亚综合保障基地) with Xi Jinping and numerous senior PLA officials in attendance. Although CV-17’s commissioning comes as no surprise given its highly publicized transit in November, there are two notable takeaways from this event.
Figure 2: ADM Yuan Yubai in attendance at the commissioning. Credit: CCTV-7 Military Report
First, the presence of the Southern Theater commander ADM Yuan Yubai (袁誉) Southern Theater Navy (STN) commander VADM Wang Hai (王海) at the commissioning ceremony strongly suggests that the PLA subordinated both CV-17 and the second aircraft carrier task group (CVTG-2) under the STN. This was always a possibility given where CV-17 commissioned and precursor infrastructure projects on Hainan island. However, CVTG-2 maintained a presence in Dalian (within the Northern Theater area of responsibility) as recently as November 2019. As such, CVTG-2 and CV-17’s subordination to STC was never a certainty until now.
An on-scene aircraft carrier and its complement of aircraft in the South China Sea (or outside the First Island Chain) gives the PLA a clear benefit by providing deterrence in peacetime and air power in wartime. However, the less appreciated benefit of having an aircraft carrier (and its task group) present is its role as a command node. A PLAN aircraft carrier task group also brings a robust combat management system and command staff that are capable of serving as a campaign-level forward or primary command post.  Such a capability would be invaluable if the PLA decides to conduct combat operations far away from mainland communication nodes.
Figure 3: Pilots embarked on CV-17 greet Xi Jinping. Credit: CCTV-7 Military Report
Second, China’s aircraft carrier force is still not fully operational. Although CV-17 may hold additional airframes within its hangers, all of the J-15 airframes visible during the commissioning are likely pre-existing airframes previously associated with CV-16 Liaoning.   The implication is that unless the PLA has hidden additional J-15’s away from prying eyes, the PLA does not have a sufficient number of carrier-capable fixed wing aircraft to fully equip two aircraft carriers and flight training units. In other words, carrier-capable aircraft production remains the short pole in the tent. Until the PLA fields additional J-15’s or other carrier-capable fixed wing aircraft, the PLA’s aircraft carrier force will remain only partially operational.
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 Analysis of a handful of post-parade paint scheme J-15 construction numbers indicate that these are old air frames. For example, the new 18 has a construction number of 0209 which correlates with the old 118 J-15.