The Weighty Matter of China’s Carrier-Borne Aircraft

CHINA’S FIRST INDIGENOUSLY designed aircraft carrier is expected to start its sea trials shortly, probably immediately after lunar new year.

The sister ship to the Liaoning, a refitted former Soviet carrier, was launched in April and has since been being fitted out in the Dalian yards where it was built (see below).  The Liaoning is currently at sea on a training mission for the crew that will man the new carrier.

Satellite image of China's first indigenous aircraft carrier being fitted out at Dalian, 2018

The still unnamed new carrier is pencilled in to enter active service at the end of this year.

Meanwhile, in the Jiangnan yards in Shanghai, work is proceeding on the next generation of Chinese carriers — and this time under a roof to hide the construction  from prying eyes in the sky.

The Type 002s will be conventionally, not nuclear powered and about 40% larger than the Type 001/001As (which at 60,000 tons displacement are mid-sized at best for carriers).  Their most significant difference is that they will employ a catapult system, not a ‘ski-jump’ to launch their aircraft.

Building the first of the next generation of carriers had been held up while the PLA-Navy (PLA-N)’s crack marine engineers solved the problem of how to power the catapult system.

The PLA-N had always wanted to go straight to an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMAL), similar to the ones on the latest US carriers. EMALs impose less wear and tear on the planes than steam-catapult launches, allow faster launches than with either ski or steam-catapult systems and allow the aircraft to carry heavier payloads.

Most importantly, the only carrier-borne aircraft the PLA-N has is a marine version of the J-15, based on 30-year old Soviet designs and the heaviest active carrier-based fighter jet in the world. Steam catapults would struggle to launch them.

However, EMALs are energy-ravenous. To date, only nuclear-powered carriers can utilize them. Conventionally powered carriers in all navies have to use steam-power, and China is not yet at the point of development of its carrier fleet where the vessels can be nuclear powered (though that is only a matter of time).

However, the PLA-N’s engineers have cracked the problem of generating enough power for an EMAL on a non-nuclear powered vessel with a head-to-tail redesign of a ship’s energy generation, storage and distribution systems. As a bonus, it will also potentially provide the power needed to launch missiles and other weapons systems.

Our man with the blueprints and T-square says that the solution ‘builds on’ the first-generation integrated propulsion system used on the United States’ Zumwalt-class guided missile destroyers which were launched in 2013.

Solving the power problem had held up development of the Type 002 carriers, which state media has previously reported had started in 2015, because the choice of launch system affects the design of the ship.

The logjam was reportedly only cleared in November after an intensive year of testing and development. Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo  told state television that month that J-15s had conducted thousands of take-offs using the electromagnetic launch system. The Navy has built a land-based test rig, just as it has a test aircraft deck in Wuhan.

China has been trying to develop a lighter fighter, the FC-31/J-31 fifth-generation stealth fighter, to replace the J-15. Shenyang Aircraft Corp., which also makes the J-15, has built two prototypes. One was shown off at the Zhuhai air show back in 2014.

However, further development has, we hear, been bedevilled by technical problems. The first test flight of a prototype was not until the end of 2016, and with a larger plane than initially intended. The proposed carrier version is larger still, leaving the PLA-N little better off regarding weight than it is with the J-15.

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