China wants six aircraft carriers by 2035. Can it build her?

You need to know that: China wants to compete with the US as an aircraft carrier superpower.

China is pushing construction of its third aircraft carrier in less than a decade, underscoring the extent of Beijing’s maritime ambitions.

A series of satellite imagery of the Jiangnan Shipyard released in 2020 by a China-focused think tank shed light on the ongoing construction of China’s Type 002 launcher. The pictures show a typical military ship construction site with a floodable basin and several lock gates. While the blurring of the photos makes it difficult to see the dimensions of the girder, the hull appears to be forty feet wide and forty-eight feet long. If previous reports are correct, Type 002 will be larger and much heavier than its predecessor, with a displacement of up to eighty-five thousand tons versus sixty thousand to seventy thousand tons. It is generally expected that the carrier will have a conventional propulsion system, but other technical details remain sparse.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Type 002’s development is the breakneck speed at which it is being produced and handed over to the People’s Liberation Army (PLAN) navy, whose commission is set for 2022. The youngest predecessor of Type 002, Type 001A, was relocated and shut down in 2013 and is still being tested at sea. Even China’s oldest aircraft carrier, the Type 001 Liaoning, was only declared ready for action in 2016 after a laborious acquisition and retrofitting process.

In addition, the Chinese Navy is reportedly already planning plans for the successor to the Type 002: the nuclear-powered Type 003. As military commentator Song Zhongping told the South China Morning Post, the Type 002 could be the last of its kind: “The Type 002 – a conventionally powered one Carrier with an EMALS-like system – could become the only one of this type of aircraft carrier because China will next build several nuclear powered combat platforms for aircraft. “

Others have rightly wondered why China is continuing to develop the Type 002 without waiting to benefit from the logistical and technical experience gained from completing the Type 001A.

Several factors play a role. On the one hand, type 002 equipped with CATOBAR is built on a completely different technical platform than its cheaper and less sophisticated STOBAR-compatible types 001 and 001A. The development of the Type 002 is such a unique design challenge for China’s defense industry that it may not have believed that there wasn’t enough relevant technical overlap between the two projects to warrant a relocation of the Type 002.

Moreover, what may appear to be the reckless or reckless attitude of PLAN in pursuing multiple large government projects at the same time is actually in line with established Chinese military development doctrine. As a Beijing-based military expert put it, “China’s tradition is to have a generation in service, a new generation under development, and a next generation under study.” In fact, the People’s Liberation Army air force is currently following an almost identical production cycle; After the dust has barely settled on their fifth generation J-20, they are already developing a sixth generation stealth fighter and are even researching the next generation into it.

China’s rush to compete with the United States as an aircraft carrier superpower reflects Beijing’s belief, instilled in the aftermath of the perceived humiliation of the Third Taiwan Crisis, that China cannot defend its 11,000 mile coastline or project sea power across the East Asian region , without the use of a modernized carrier fleet; especially six of them by 2035.

Mark Episkopos is a National Security Reporter for the National Interest.

This article first appeared in July 2020.

Image: REUTERS / Bobby Yip

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