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China’s newest hi-tech aircraft carrier, explained

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy has launched its latest Type 003 aircraft carrier on June 17, the latest indicator of Chinese naval shipbuilding prowess, making it the third carrier, yet largest warship ever built in the nation.

China now has three aircraft carriers, in addition to over one hundred warships built over the last ten years, exceeding the growth of any navy worldwide.

Displacing 85,000 to 100,000 tons, and over 300 metres in length, the Type 003 is noteworthy for the speed of its development, particularly in skipping two generations of hydraulic and steam technology in its carrier launch technology. 

Instead, the Type 003 includes an electromagnetic launch system, competing with a more advanced US equivalent. The electromagnetic catapult technology will allow the Type 003 to field different military aircraft, increasing the range and effectiveness of the carrier, according to a US Department of Defence report to Congress. 

Deep seas

China is in the process of developing a fourth aircraft carrier capable of nuclear propulsion, with leaked documents indicating that it will be capable of fielding advanced fighters and stealth jets, surveillance and control craft, anti-submarine helicopters and drones.  

As China focuses on building its next-generation carrier, it’s also coming up short on aircraft to field them. With at least 22 J-15 carrier-compatible fighter jets, China will need more fighter aircraft if it is to equip two modern carriers, giving rise to expectations of a next-generation aircraft-based fighter to accommodate its new capacities.  

A nuclear-capable aircraft carrier would only be limited by the amount of supplies it can carry at sea, and the resilience of its sailors, granting the ability to project force or deny across the world’s seas and coasts.

Big targets, sharp eyes

China’s latest aircraft carrier is not welcome news to US defence officials who also have to contend with the widespread use of satellite imagery and artificial intelligence, making it more difficult for large warships to maintain the advantage of surprise.

AI could allow satellites to quickly identify warship electronic signatures from space, despite scrambling and background noise.

Pointing out the steadily increasing transparency of battlefields, Timothy Heath, a senior international defence researcher at the RAND Corporation who spoke to military magazine Task & Purpose, predicts that new technology “will make it increasingly difficult for major combatant ships like a carrier to hide. In fact, it’s almost a given that the days of the carrier on the modern battlefield may be numbered.”

Opinions remain mixed however, given that while the Type 003 was launched it will take some time for it to be operations.

“This carrier will certainly impact the PLANs maritime capabilities… but it will not significantly impact U.S. warfighting capabilities in the Western Pacific,” asserts Mark Montgomery, a Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, speaking to the Military Times.

Carrier market coming soon

With tight controls over military technology transfer, and little in the way of allied aircraft markets for US allies, China’s successful entry into aircraft manufacturing will prove a game-changer for the country. 

Technologies including carrier-compatible aircraft, advanced power management and electromagnetic launch systems all present steep learning curves and prohibitive research and development costs.

The US’s bid to transfer aircraft carrier technology to France came to a grinding halt in September 2021 amid tensions over an AUKUS defence agreement between the US, United Kingdom and Australia. The deal led to the cancellation of Australia’s $65 billion deal to buy 12 French submarines.

For aspiring navies, aircraft carrier competition between major state actors could mean the rise of new carrier technology markets, driving carrier proliferation to historic levels 98 years after the first US carrier was commissioned.

For the moment, while aircraft carriers are not in risk of going obsolete, carriers are likely to face renewed carrier-on-carrier competition as traditional monopolies on advanced naval technology slowly come to an end.

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