10:19 GMT +317 August 2018
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    In this April 12, 2018 photo released by Xinhua News Agency, the Liaoning aircraft carrier is accompanied by navy frigates and submarines conducting an exercises in the South China Sea

    DC Think Tank Says China's Third Carrier Can 'Put China in a Very Elite Status'

    © AP Photo / Li Gang/Xinhua
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    The company building China's aircraft carriers has said that it wants to create and field nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with electromagnetically assisted launch systems by the mid-2020s. US observers say that even if only the second requirement is met, China will quickly join a very small group of nations with carrier-building capabilities.

    Last month, The Diplomat reported that China could have as many as seven operational aircraft carrying ships by 2025, including four carriers and three smaller aircraft carrying vessels. The estimate followed rumors that a Chinese company's request for a bid on a nuclear-powered icebreaker may in fact be the first step toward the creation of a nuclear-powered carrier. That news followed the leak of an image that appeared to show a carrier design with three catapult launchers, prompting speculation that China is well underway to developing electromagnetic launch catapult technologies as well.

    Interest in the Chinese Navy's carrier plans spiked after the 2012 deployment of the Liaoning, a Soviet heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser design purchased and revamped by China and even more so with the launch of the Type 001A, China's first domestically-built carrier, earlier this year.

    The Type 002, China's second generation aircraft carrier design, is broadly expected to have an electromagnetic launch catapult similar to the kind used by the US and France. The construction of the ship, which reportedly began sometime between 2015 and 2016, is expected to be completed by 2020, with the Navy expecting to commission the carrier by 2023.

    Training Wheels Come Off

    Matthew Funaiole, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic & International Studies, says that whereas China's first two carriers were really aimed at helping the Chinese Navy get its bearings in the use of aircraft carriers, the Type 002 is the ship naval observers should really watch out for.

    "The new one, the Type 002, is something that might be a little more interesting, a little more compelling," Funaiole told Business Insider.

    "If the third carrier … does have some catapult-assisted launch system, that will be a huge step forward for China. They would very quickly have moved closer to what current technology is. That's something that very few countries can do. That would put China in a very elite status," the analyst stressed.

    Replacing the ski jump-assisted launch systems used on China's current first generation carriers with an electromagnetic catapult system will enable planes to carry more fuel and ammunition, thus increasing the range and power of the carrier strike group.

    China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation board meeting showing a possible second-generation Chinese aircraft carrier (center).
    CSIC
    China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation board meeting showing a possible second-generation Chinese aircraft carrier (center).

    At the same time, in Funaiole's estimation, notwithstanding China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation's ambitions to field a nuclear-powered carrier by 2025, the Type 002 will likely be diesel-based. The Chinese, the analyst said, have "such serious deficiencies with their engines, and this is a historic problem for China, not just for their ships but for their airplanes as well."

    "That's going to be the biggest challenge for China. Trying to figure out how to get a nuclear-powered reactor on the ship," he argued. Without nuclear propulsion, China's carriers will remain less efficient, slower, and have a shorter service life than their US counterparts.

    Existing Carriers 'Pretty Good' for What They Are

    Even the Liaoning is "pretty good at its job," according to Funaiole, given that it effectively serves as a sort of training vessel "to sort out carrier operations, figure out how to integrate [a carrier] into the fleet, and determine what kind of supporting vessels [China] need[s] to put with the carrier for their mission."

    This is important, Funaiole noted, given that the Chinese are "very new to carrier operations" and "have never operated carriers in any high-intensity situations."

    At the current stage, the researcher suggested that it's "a little bit unfair" to compare China's carriers with US capabilities "because the US has been doing this for 90 years and the Chinese are just now getting into the carrier game."

    In this undated photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a carrier-borne J-15 fighter jet lands on China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning
    © AP Photo / Xinhua, Zha Chunming
    In this undated photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a carrier-borne J-15 fighter jet lands on China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning

    With that in mind, China's first two carriers, the Liaoning and the Type 001A, are not competitors to the US so much as a sign that China is "practicing how to build and operate carriers." According to Funaiole, it is totally realistic to expect China to build between four and six carriers over the next decade, with areas of deployment including the South China Sea and perhaps even the Indian Ocean.

    For now, the lack of skilled carrier pilots, and the use of the heavy Shenyang J-15 fighter are holding the carrier program back. "The J-15 is not the most efficient carrier platform. It's probably the heaviest aircraft that takes off on a carrier right now," he said. The plane's weight, combined with the ski jump launch system's limitation, limits Chinese carriers' strategic capabilities. 

    However, given that China's naval ambitions are generally limited to defending coastal areas, including the disputed South China Sea area, even that may be enough. In Southeast Asia, "no country is going to have the capacity to even match China [technologically] in any way," Funaiole concluded.

    Related:

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    Tags:
    aircraft carrier, analysis, People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China, United States
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