China’s next aircraft carrier likely to be nuclear-powered: sources

  • “Shipbuilders and marine propulsion engineers are desperate to make a major breakthrough,” said a person close to the Chinese Navy with China’s fourth aircraft carrier.
  • However, pursuing a nuclear power plant for the next airline would be “a brave decision fraught with challenges,” a second source said.
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China’s next aircraft carrier is likely to be powered by nuclear power, according to two people close to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

After a two-year delay due to technical issues, construction on the ship resumed earlier this year, the South China Morning Post reported in January, citing a military source.

“Shipbuilders and marine propulsion engineers want to make a major breakthrough with the construction of the fourth aircraft carrier,” said a source close to the Chinese Navy on condition of anonymity.

“It will be a technological leap for the shipbuilding industry … but construction can take longer than for the sister ship due to the different propulsion systems.”

China already has two operational aircraft carriers, and a third – which the source was referring to – is expected to be launched this year. Nobody is nuclear powered.

China aircraft carrier type 001a

The Type 001A aircraft carrier, dubbed Shandong, is China’s first domestically built carrier.


A second source, also asking not to be identified, said the Central Military Commission is considering a proposal by the China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) to use nuclear power for the fourth airline.

He declined to say whether a decision had been made but said it was “a very brave decision that is fraught with challenges”.

The CSSC announced in February 2018 that it had begun development of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that would help the PLA Navy “achieve their strategic transformation and combat readiness capability in deep waters and open oceans by 2025”.

In 2019, the China General Nuclear Power Group requested offers for an order to build a 30,000-ton nuclear-powered ship, which it called an “experimental platform”.

The first source said the “experimental platform” was intended to test the nuclear reactors that would later be installed on aircraft carriers.

Communications from the PLA last year indicated that it had purchased a number of reports on the construction of a nuclear propulsion system. The PLA has more than a dozen nuclear-powered submarines, including Type 091, Type 093, and Type 095.

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said a nuclear power system would not only allow the aircraft carriers’ electromagnetic catapult systems to operate more smoothly, it would also support high-energy weapons such as laser and rail guns.

“Also, the control tower island on a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is much smaller than a conventionally powered platform, which frees up more space for planes,” he said.

It is unknown how large China’s fourth aircraft carrier will be, but its third has a displacement of about 85,000 tons.

The Liaoning, China's first aircraft carrier, leaves Hong Kong

Liaoning departs from Hong Kong.

Kin Cheung / AP

Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at the Taiwanese Naval Academy, said if the PLA decides to use nuclear power on its fourth aircraft carrier, it is possible that the CSSC could convert the steam turbines on its conventionally powered sister ship into nuclear reactors in the future.

The PLA did a similar thing with the Liaoning – its first aircraft carrier based on an unfinished Soviet ship that China bought from Ukraine in 1998 – after seeing new technology work on the country’s first domestically developed carrier, the Shandong , worked, said Lu.

The Liaoning, which joined the PLA Navy in 2012, was painstakingly upgraded between late 2018 and early 2019.

Images published online by the CSSC showed that the design and size of the control tower on the third carrier are similar to that on Liaoning and Shandong, which Li said was the “normal design” for a conventionally powered ship.

“Conventionally powered hauliers need a larger control tower because the emissions require chimneys,” he said.

Other reports posted online said China’s third aircraft carrier is scheduled to launch by July 1, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s establishment.

However, Zhou Chenming, a researcher at Beijing-based military think tank Yuan Wang, said it was unlikely because “quality assurance is always a top priority in carrier projects.”

“Weapon systems are built for combat, not to celebrate special days,” he said.

The Chinese Navy had previously announced that it would launch at least six aircraft carrier strike groups by 2035 to meet the United States’ maritime strength in the Pacific.

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