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China’s next aircraft carrier likely to be nuclear

Official Line Is That China’s Fourth Planned Carrier Will Be Conventional But Recent Reports Point To More Powerful Ambitions

China's Fujian aircraft carrier. It's fourth planned carrier is likely to be nuclear. Image: Weibo

China aims to build a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to protect its growing strategic interests abroad, the latest flex of Beijing’s growing naval power and clout.

This month, the South China Morning Post reported that analysts believe China’s follow-up to the recent successful launch of its Fujian aircraft carrier will probably be nuclear-powered, with some noting the China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) has stated that it must achieve a breakthrough in nuclear-powered technology by 2027.

An article in the Wave of South China Sea, a military affairs social media account, states that the shipyards responsible for China’s carriers have not yet been given the necessary permission and that it is not sure if China can acquire the technology to build nuclear-powered carriers. It also stated that a diesel-powered vessel would be more suited to China’s needs.

It’s not the first time China has voiced its ambitions to build a nuclear-powered carrier. This May, Asia Times reported that in February 2018 CSSC started developing a nuclear-powered carrier that would help the PLA Navy by 2025.

The report also cites an article by Popular Science mentioning a CSSC leak that appears to show a mock-up of China’s planned nuclear-powered carrier, tentatively designated “Type 003.”

Leaked CSSC details claim that the new class “will displace between ninety thousand and one hundred thousand tons and have electromagnetically assisted launch system (EMALS) catapults for getting aircraft off the deck. It’ll likely carry a large air wing of J-15 fighters, J-31 stealth fighters, KJ-600 airborne early warning and control aircraft, anti-submarine warfare helicopters, and stealth attack drones.”

China’s nuclear-powered carrier, partnered with Type 055 cruisers and next-generation submarines, would have the potential to become a formidable force for global missions. Such specifications put China’s planned nuclear carrier at par with current US supercarriers, at least on paper.

The South China Morning Post report mentions that China has completed design work for its fourth carrier, expected between 2025 and 2027. However, military sources to date have stated that it will be conventionally powered.

China’s third aircraft carrier, the Fujian, is launched in Shanghai on June 17, 2022. Photo: VCG

The report notes that conventional carriers require less maintenance and are cheaper to build than their nuclear-powered counterparts. However, nuclear power is more suited for catapult-equipped carriers such as the Fujian, as their reactors give the vessel practically unlimited range and generate steam to power aircraft catapults.

The Fujian is China’s first carrier to feature an electromagnetic launch system (EMALS), which uses powerful electromagnets rather than steam catapults to launch aircraft. EMALS is said to be gentler on airframes, potentially reducing maintenance downtime and increasing service life, and allows the Fujian to launch fighters carrying more fuel and weapons or heavier types of aircraft.

So far, only the US and France operate nuclear-powered carriers, with the US using the Nimitz and Ford classes and the French deploying the Charles de Gaulle.

The South China Morning Post report presents a convergence of views that China’s next carrier will put it in the same nuclear class.

Malcolm Davis, a senior security analyst from the Canberra-based Australian Strategic Policy Institute, opines that China’s next carrier will be nuclear-powered, noting two key reasons.

First, Davis notes a nuclear-powered carrier fits into China’s ambition to have a world-class navy with long-range power projection capabilities, thus reducing the need for forward bases and replenishment ships. Second, Davis says that nuclear-powered carriers are considered prestige assets, which if acquired would reinforce China’s image as a global superpower.

Brad Martin, a senior policy researcher at RAND, concurs that China’s next carrier will probably be nuclear-powered, noting that the EMALS technology in use with Fujian requires significant amounts of energy that is difficult for a conventionally-powered carrier to provide. Martin also notes that China already operates nuclear-powered submarines and that a nuclear-powered carrier would appear to be the next logical step.

China’s global ambitions are reflected in its Maritime Silk Road, a network of Chinese-leased or funded ports stretching from Europe to Asia. This network serves as a China-centered maritime trade route that may require long-range power projection capabilities to secure, with nuclear-powered carriers fitting the capability requirements.

But, as previously noted by Asia Times, an aircraft carrier may be an overly capable and costly asset for relatively humdrum missions such as escorting merchant convoys.

Moreover, risk aversion to losing a carrier in combat operations may relegate China’s carriers to political assets to showcase its great power status. Ever since the end of World War II, the US has only operated carriers in permissive environments against adversaries who have no means of contesting sea control.

China’s carriers, however, will encounter very different areas of operations. The New York Times reported this month that the US is aiming to turn Taiwan into a “giant weapons depot” as part of a “porcupine strategy.”

That strategy, the report says, involves numerous but highly mobile, dispersed and survivable weapons such as anti-ship missiles, man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), naval mines and surface-to-air missiles (SAM) that can survive China’s initial strikes, and inflict severe casualties on an invasion force while putting China’s prized aircraft carriers at risk.

The US has substantial capabilities to break a potential Chinese blockade of Taiwan. This month, Nikkei cited Admiral Samuel Paparo, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, as saying that the US can break China’s blockade of Taiwan, referencing America’s nuclear submarine fleet and other undersea warfare capabilities.

In a Taiwan conflict scenario, it is plausible that China is aiming for a six-carrier navy, with its three fleets operating two carriers. That would follow the Royal Navy model where one carrier would be on deployment while the other is undergoing maintenance, refit and crew training.

In such a Taiwan scenario, carrier battlegroups from China’s North Sea Fleet, East Sea Fleet, and South Sea Fleet would perform flanking maneuvers in the Miyako Strait, Taiwan Strait and Bashi Channel to enforce a blockade of Taiwan.

In one view, analysts believe conventional carriers would be better suited to China’s needs in a conflict over nearby Taiwan due to the short distances involved. Even so, a nuclear-powered carrier would still be a powerful asset for China should it decide to build such a warship.

Specifically, a nuclear-powered carrier can reduce the need to break off operations to refuel and resupply, increase sortie rates by China’s combat aircraft and strengthen China’s blockade of Taiwan compared to conventionally-powered vessels by providing a persistent presence.