ONE OF THE naval world’s worst-kept secrets is that China is building its third and fourth aircraft carriers. The closest to official confirmation of that to date has come from Li Jie, a senior researcher at the Naval Military Studies Research Institute of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), speaking at a national defence education event in Beijing.
There was nothing that has been reported in Li’s remarks to alter what we already believe to be the case. He said that on the third carrier an electromagnetic catapult launch system would replace the ‘ski-jump’ of the PLA-Navy’s first two carriers, the Liaoning (seen above in 2018) and the Shandong, and that the power system of the fourth carrier would be ‘very likely to adopt significant changes’. That could mean nuclear powered or that the solution found to the power demands of electromagnetic catapult launching, which are typically beyond a conventionally powered carrier, might be extensible to the vessel’s whole propulsion system.
The third carrier is also likely to be larger than the Shandong — of the order of 80,000-85,000 tons versus 66,000-70,000 tons. That makes it a decent mid-sized carrier, but will also let it accommodate an additional 12 fighter jets, taking its complement to the 48 considered the minimum necessary for combat.
Catapult launching will allow its aircraft to carry heavier payloads, for a broader range of aircraft to be deployed, such as the new KJ-600 surveillance plane, and for more rapid flight operations. Along with the third carrier’s greater sea range, this will extend the reach and effectiveness of its carrier-based fighters.
However, the fifth-generation carrier-based fighters that China is developing (with some difficulty), the FC-31/J-31, will still not be a match for the F-35 stealth fighters the US Navy already has in the air. We note in passing that South Korea has F-35Bs (the short takeoff/vertical landing variant) and has allocated money in its 2021-25 defence budget to build a 30,000-ton carrier for them, similar to Japan’s destroyer helicopter carriers. For its part, Tokyo has F-35Bs on order for its mini-carriers.
Nonetheless, the rapid build-out of a blue-water fleet with carriers as the centrepiece means that China’s maritime security within the first island chain already looks increasingly assured. The PLA-Navy’s capacity to put adversaries at risk up to 1,500 kilometres off China’s coast will grow with its next carriers.
The third carrier is expected to be commissioned into service in 2023 and operational the following year. It has been under construction at the Jiangnan military naval yard in Shanghai since 2018.
Meanwhile, the Liaoning and the Shandong have carried out joint exercises for the first time, conducting live-fire and coordination drills in the Bohai and Yellow seas last week that appear to have continued into this.
There is nothing out of the ordinary about synchronised operations between two carriers, and it is just one more thing the PLA-N has to master as it learns how to operate carrier battle groups.
However, in the context of Taiwan, one implication of PLA-N dual-carrier operations is that in the event of a military invasion of the island, they could effectively blunt a possible US intervention on Taipei’s behalf. The US Navy’s dual-carrier exercises in the Western Pacific have shown the effectiveness of such coordination for sustaining high-intensity attack missions by carrier-based aircraft.