How China’s Third Aircraft Carrier, A Major Upgrade Over Its Existing Ones, Is Taking Shape  

How China’s Third Aircraft Carrier, A Major Upgrade Over Its Existing Ones, Is Taking Shape  PLAN’s Type003 carrier at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. (@RupprechtDeino/Twitter)  
Snapshot
  • Type 003 is not only larger than its predecessors but also represents a major technological leap for China that will significantly upgrade its naval capabilities.

Only nine years ago, China's People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) did not have an aircraft carrier. Its first carrier, built from the refitted hull of an old Soviet-era vessel, entered service in 2012. Since then, China has built and commissioned an indigenous aircraft carrier, a larger and slightly improved copy of its first carrier.

Now, satellite imagery has revealed that the PLAN has made significant progress in the construction of its third aircraft carrier. Called Type 003, the carrier has been under construction since 2018 at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, part of the world's largest shipbuilder China State Shipbuilding Corporation.

The carrier is not only larger than its predecessors but also represents a major technological leap for China and will significantly upgrade the capabilities of the PLAN, now the largest navy in the world in terms of the number of vessels.

PLAN’s Type 003 will feature a flat-top flight deck with a catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) system for the launch and recovery of aircraft from the deck of an aircraft carrier, an upgrade over the short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) system used on China’s Liaoning and Shandong aircraft carriers and India’s INS Vikramaditya and IAC-1.

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.

Although the CATOBAR system is much more expensive and complex, it offers a major advantage over the STOBAR — the ability to launch aircraft at maximum takeoff weight and full payload. STOBAR is efficient only with aircraft having high thrust-to-weight ratio, limiting an aircraft’s takeoff weight in many cases. This, in turn, could limit the weaponry onboard the fighter or the fuel it can carry, thereby reducing its range and loitering time and degrading its strike capabilities.

Moreover, 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 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 under unfavourable wind conditions, and even when the carrier is stationary. In case of STOBAR, wind on deck plays a critical role in launching aircraft as a certain level of carrier headwind is required.

CATOBAR imposes less stress on the airframe in comparison to STOBAR. The latter induces more stress on the airframe during take off, which leads to reduction in 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.

“China’s next generation of carriers, including one that began construction in 2018, will have...a catapult launch system capable of launching various types of special mission fixed-wing aircraft...such as early warning, EW, and ASW. These improvements would increase the striking power of a potential carrier battle group when deployed to areas beyond China’s immediate periphery,” it adds.

China could use steam catapults, like the ones used on US’ Nimitz class, or equip the carrier with electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS). The introduction of EMALS on Type 003 will be a major technological challenge — a conventionally powered carrier with an EMALS has not been built before. While some reports suggest China is up for such a challenge, there is no confirmation.

EMALS, which is being installed on US’ Ford-class carriers, 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 carriers of the US Navy, EMALS will allow 160 sorties per day in peace time and a surge capability of 270 sorties during wartime. When compared to the Nimitz class, which uses steam catapult, this is an increase of nearly 33 per cent during peacetime and a 12.5 per cent increase during wartime.

The air wing required 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 aircraft carrier.

Some 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 aircraft 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.

Thus, China’s next aircraft carrier will be a major upgrade over its existing ones.

Recent satellite imagery shows rapid progress in the construction of the aircraft at the Jiangnan Shipyard over the last few months despite the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. An analysis of satellite images by the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the flight deck of the carrier is now partially complete and the prefabricated parts of the hull have also been assembled.

China’s third aircraft carrier at Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. (Maxar Technologies/CSIS)
China’s third aircraft carrier at Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. (Maxar Technologies/CSIS)

Type 003 is likely to have a smaller island — the tower that houses the command center — in comparison to Shandong. This will free up space on the deck.

Based on the latest satellite imagery, the vessel’s overall length currently appears to be around 315 metres and its width at the widest point is nearly 74 metres. US Navy’s newest carrier, USS Ford, is 337 metres long and 78 metres wide. The final dimensions of Type 003 will be available only once it nears completion.

Some estimates suggest the carrier could have a displacement of over 80,000-85,000 tonnes, which will bring it closer to the nuclear-powered supper carriers of the US Navy. US Navy's Nimitz class carriers displace around 100,000 tonnes.

The aircraft carrier is likely to be launched in 2022, after which it will be fitted with electronics, accommodation facilities and weapons systems. It could be commissioned as early as 2024, an unclassified report from the Office of Naval Intelligence of the US Navy says.

In comparison, India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, which was laid down in 2009, will only be commissioned into the Indian Navy sometime next year.

Prakhar Gupta is a senior editor at Swarajya. He tweets @prakharkgupta.



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