Why do the Chinese build aircraft carriers?

Fewer Chinese aircraft carriers than planned?

Status: October 21, 2020 12:00 p.m.
So far, the flight deck of the Chinese aircraft carriers has been a kind of jump.

When it became known at the end of last year that the People's Republic of China was working on a third aircraft carrier, many experts and naval observers were astonished. After all, the Chinese Navy had only recently put its second carrier - the "Shandong" - into service with great pathos. The name of the new ship is not yet known. The Chinese military and its leadership are also holding back with information. Only one thing is clear: this time, carrier number three is a real in-house development.

Chinese construction in the future

The first ship, the "Liaoning", was bought by China from Ukraine a few years ago and finished the work for probably several billion dollars. The second Chinese aircraft carrier is a copy of the first and is thus also based on the design of the Russian Admiral Kuznetov class. Both ships have a so-called ski jump - i.e. an elevation at the end of the flight deck so that the aircraft can take off without a catapult.

Orientation towards US carriers

The aim of the Chinese: a flat flight deck like that of the US carriers.

Sarah Kirchberger deals with maritime security in the Asian Pacific region at the Kiel Institute for Security Policy and knows that the new carrier will look completely different this time. The third carrier under construction will be a so-called flat-top - that is, it will have a flat flight deck and, like the American aircraft carriers, will be equipped with a catapult system. Possibly even with an electromagnetic catapult system - a so-called EMALS system. According to the security expert Kirchberger, the older steam catapult is also an option for the Chinese. Which technology the Chinese Navy will opt for is still open. In any case, there are test facilities in China for both catapult systems.

Catapult systems put to the test

They are near Wuhan. Airplanes take off and land there regularly to try out the different catapult systems. Nearby, Chinese engineers have also built a replica of a girder, a so-called mock-up, on a one-to-one scale - from thousands of tons of concrete.

Speculation about nuclear propulsion

Which system will ultimately prevail also depends on the propulsion of the ship. Because a lot of energy is required for the electromagnetic variant - the US variant should be around 50 megawatts in the short term - i.e. enough energy to supply a small town with 60,000 inhabitants. The two Chinese aircraft carriers already in service are powered by steam turbines. Will the third ship now possibly have a nuclear drive for the first time? The marine expert Sarah Kirchberger from the Institute for Security Policy in Kiel points out that China currently has no nuclear drive for such large ships. "There are only nuclear drives for the submarines, but they are not suitable for propelling a carrier. And since that has not yet been developed, it is assumed that it could be difficult with the EMALS system in China. " The drive of the third Chinese aircraft carrier is therefore still unclear, as is the question of what type of catapult will be used in the future.

Aiming for a new carrier aircraft

The Chinese Navy is apparently planning lighter carrier aircraft.

It is also not certain which aircraft will take off from the deck of the new flagship. The Shenyang J-15 is stationed on the two carriers "Liaoning" and "Shangdong". The aircraft is based in part on the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 - but is not built under license. With a maximum weight of 33 tons, China's copy is the heaviest aircraft ever to be used on carriers. This has disadvantages in terms of armament and range. We know that a new carrier-based aircraft is in development, says Sarah Kirchberger from the Institute for Security Policy in Kiel. There are mainly rumors about the features, so technical details are not yet known.

Immense costs

So far, the costs for the new aircraft carrier are also still unclear. There are no conclusions - but a comparison. The type ship for the new US Navy carrier, the Gerald Ford, costs 13 billion US dollars. In addition, there is another 36 billion for the development of new technologies. The Chinese government may also have spent similar amounts.

Are you aiming for more than four aircraft carriers?

Recently it was said that the Chinese were aiming for a fleet of at least six aircraft carriers by 2035. Several ships should have nuclear propulsion. According to media reports, these ambitious goals have now been revised downwards. The reasons are technical problems, but also the immense costs. Meanwhile, there is talk of a total of four aircraft carriers. According to many marine experts, the construction of the third girder with the so-called flat-top deck will definitely be continued and completed.

"Carrier eats the fleet"

Aircraft carriers are only used with numerous escort ships.

Apparently the Chinese military must also take note of a general rule of thumb, says former naval officer Heinz-Dieter Jopp. There is a saying among the naval forces of the world: "Carrier eats up the fleet. That means that the moment you have aircraft carriers, you need ships to protect this carrier. So submarines that protect this carrier, airplanes and everything that goes with them . "

Pacific and Indian Ocean as a deployment area

But a scaled-down carrier program would also be ambitious. After the third aircraft carrier, it should be a long way from the end - it is also already clear where the ships should cross, says marine expert Sarah Kirchberger. It is rumored from Chinese military circles that the basic idea is "basically to use two carriers in the Indian Ocean and two carriers in the Pacific". Based on this, there is a total "requirement of five to six carriers".

Carrier as a status symbol?

But why does China need a fleet of aircraft carriers at all? The experts largely agree on this point. Unlike the USA, the country does not primarily want to achieve political goals with these large ships. The main aim of the Chinese is to underpin their status as a superpower in this way. Above all, the new sponsoring associations are intended to show that Beijing has drawn level with the USA in the military field as well.


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NDR Info | Armed Forces and Strategies | 07/25/2020 | 7:20 pm