China's third aircraft carrier, its largest and most advanced so far, could be launched as soon as 3 June, which coincides with the ancient Dragon Boat Festival and the 157th anniversary of the founding of Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, where the carrier is being constructed. Satellite imagery experts have pointed out that the dry dock at Jiangnan Shipyard has been cleared in recent days, opening a path for the warship to enter the Yangtze River.
Just ten years ago, China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) did not have a carrier. Its first carrier, built from the refitted hull of an old Soviet-era vessel, entered service in 2012. In 2019, China commissioned its first indigenous aircraft carrier, a larger and slightly improved copy of its first carrier.
Type 003, which has been under construction since 2018, is China's second indigenous aircraft carrier. The carrier is not only larger than its predecessors but also represents a major technological leap for China and will significantly upgrade the power projection capabilities of the PLAN, now the largest navy in the world in terms of the number of vessels.
Type 003 has a flat-top flight deck equipped with a catapult assisted take off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) system to operate aircraft, an upgrade over the short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) system used on China's Liaoning and Shandong carriers and India's INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant.
In the STOBAR system, aircraft are launched from a carrier using their own power with a ski-jump ramp on the bow of the carrier assisting take off. However, in the CATOBAR system, mechanical assistance is provided to the aircraft for take-off using a catapult, which is built into the carrier's flight deck. In both these systems, arrestor wires, which rapidly but smoothly decelerate an aircraft as it lands on deck, are used for recovery.
CATOBAR is expensive and complex, but it offers a significant advantage over STOBAR — the ability to launch aircraft at maximum take off weight and a full payload. STOBAR is efficient only with aircraft having a high thrust-to-weight ratio, limiting an aircraft's take off weight in many cases. This, in turn, could limit the weaponry on board the fighter or the fuel it can carry, thereby reducing its range and loitering time and degrading its strike capabilities.
Moreover, the CATOBAR system provides greater flexibility in carrier operations in terms of the type of aircraft that can be launched. Heavy platforms (aircraft that have a lower thrust-to-weight ratio) such as airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles can also be launched using the CATOBAR system. This is because it provides an extra push for aircraft with a catapult shot, unlike STOBAR, which enables aircraft to take off through engine thrust.
CATOBAR can also launch aircraft in unfavourable wind conditions and even when the carrier is stationary. In the case of STOBAR, wind on deck plays a critical role in launching aircraft as a certain level of carrier headwind is required. STOBAR also induces more stress on the airframe during take off, which reduces the service life of carrier-based aircraft.
"This design will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations and thus extend the reach and effectiveness of its carrier-based strike aircraft," the Pentagon's annual report on China's military modernisation said in 2020.
Some experts have said that Type 003 has electromagnetic catapult technology, like the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) on the Ford-class carriers currently being constructed for the US Navy. The system is a significant upgrade over the steam catapults used on Nimitz-class carriers.
If this is true, the introduction of EMALS on Type 003 would have been a major technological challenge for China — a conventionally powered carrier with an EMALS has not been built before. The US Navy carriers which use EMALS are nuclear-powered. In 2017, reports said China had achieved a breakthrough that would allow a conventionally powered aircraft carrier to operate an electromagnetic launch system.
EMALS enables faster take offs, among other advantages such as the ability to adjust the power needed to launch each aircraft and the capability to launch pilotless drones. On the Ford-class aircraft carriers of the US Navy, EMALS will allow 160 sorties per day in peacetime and a surge capability of 270 sorties during wartime. Compared to traditional steam catapults on the operational Nimitz-class carriers, this is an increase of nearly 33 per cent during peacetime and a 12.5 per cent increase during wartime.
The air wing for China's CATOBAR carrier has also started taking shape.
China has also started working on a CATOBAR variant of the J-15, its deck-based fighter. Called J-15T, it features the modifications, including a strengthened nose landing gear, required to operate from a CATOBAR-equipped carrier.
Recent developments also suggest that a derivative of China's FC-31 stealth fighter could be its next carrier fighter. A mockup of the fighter was recently spotted at the country's land-based carrier test facility in Wuhan, where it was positioned on a full-size mock carrier along with mockups of J-15 fighters.
"...development continues on...FC-31/J-31 for export or as a future naval fighter for the PLAN's next class of aircraft carriers," the Pentagon report said.
China has been testing its domestically developed carrier-borne AEW aircraft KJ-600 (similar to the US E-2 Hawkeye, which was offered to India) as the introduction of catapult on Type 003 has made the operation of such an aircraft possible. It will provide long-range surveillance against air, sea and land targets.
The carrier, however, is still years away from being operational. After it is launched, the warship will be fitted with electronics, accommodation facilities and weapons systems and undergo testing. In 2020, an unclassified report from the Office of Naval Intelligence of the US Navy said the aircraft carrier could be commissioned as early as 2024. However, with the launch of the carrier already delayed due to the outbreak of Covid-19, the assessment may no longer hold.
Prakhar Gupta is a senior editor at Swarajya. He tweets @prakharkgupta.
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