China Abandoned Plans to Build Fifth and Sixth Aircraft Carrier

China is a great power with a vast economy. A recent Australian government report estimates that by 2030, the Chinese economy will be worth $42 trillion versus $24 trillion for the United States — in other words, in less than 15 years’ time China’s economy could be almost double the size of America’s.

For over a decade, China has been steadily building up plans to deploy six aircraft carriers of progressively greater capability.

However, sending an aircraft carrier to the ocean requires a Navy to operate an aircraft carrier groups combining anti-air, anti-surface, anti-ballistic missile and anti-submarine warfare capable destroyer, escort frigate, mission replenishment, and submarines to deter enemy coming close to the aircraft carrier. That’s a multi-billion dollar expensive business, Chinese $239 billion defense budget is not enough to maintain an armada of an aircraft carrier.

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On November 28, 2019, Minnie Chan of the South China Morning Post reported that Beijing was scrapping plans for a fifth and sixth nuclear-powered carrier, once it finished construction of two new steam-powered vessels.

The reasons? “Technical challenges, reliable deck-based aircraft and high costs,” including issues particularly linked to the development of the latter two vessel’s electromagnetic launch systems—the EMALs system is operational in the U.S. Navy.

The EMALs are a complex piece of machine that solves many problems of an aircraft carrier and free up spaces below the deck of the aircraft carrier. Still, building EMALs is an expensive business if one can perfect the technology.  

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But rather than adopting the steam catapults used on most flat-deck aircraft carriers, Beijing was determined to steal a technological step by directly adopting next-generation electromagnetic launch systems, or EMALs—currently only featured on two new Gerald Ford-class carrier of the US Navy.

South China Morning Post reported that “China doesn’t possess the nuclear technology required, although it has developed many nuclear-powered submarines.” apparently carrier’s larger-scale needs to pose a more significant technical challenge.

Only the U.S. Navy, Royal Navy, Italian Navy and French Navy so far mastered the science of deck-based aircraft.

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The new carrier will be the second of the Type-002 design which, as you might have guessed, following on from two Type-001s. The first carrier, Type-001 Liaoning, was commissioned in 2012. The third carrier, which is under construction in Shanghai, is a new Type-002 design. And the 4th carrier will also be a Type-002.

The Type-002s are expected to be a significant improvement over their predecessors. Although they may share a family resemblance, they are likely to operate aircraft in a significantly different way. The first two carriers use a ski-jump to launch their jets under their own power. This is simpler than a catapult but creates limitations on take-off loads. The Type-002s are expected to have an electromagnetic catapult, known as EMALs (electromagnetic aircraft launch system).

Shenyang J-15

The Liaoning features a curved ‘ski-jump’ ramp that limits the fuel and weapons payload carried by her J-15 Flying Shark fighters. Chinese media described the J-15 as “flopping fish”.

The second carrier, launched in 2017—variously designated the Type 001A or Type 002—was China’s first entirely domestically built carrier and is essentially a modestly improved Type 001.

China’s third and fourth carriers are significantly larger and more capable, with flat, catapult-equipped flight decks that would allow the deployment of fully combat-loaded jet fighters.

The catapults used by China’s third and fourth-carriers are also experiencing teething issues, according to SCMP newspaper: “tests of the electromagnetic catapults used to launch the J-15, China’s only carrier-based fighter, had yet to meet the required standard.”

SCMP cites a military insider in describing China does not have a technology to build miniaturized nuclear reactor powerful enough to power an aircraft carrier, a naval variant J-31 aircraft is many years behind schedule,  catapults and EMALs are not mature enough to put them into operational aircraft carrier are the factors behind the axing of China’s plans for nuclear-powered supercarriers.

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