The Chinese navy could commission its first catapult-equipped aircraft carrier in 2022, according to the May 2019 edition of the U.S. Defense Department’s annual report on Chinese military developments.
A carrier with catapults can launch heavier aircraft than a carrier without catapults can do. Catapults finally will allow the Chinese navy to form U.S.-style carrier air wings with a full range of fighter aircraft and support planes.
China’s first two flattop Liaoning, a Cold War-vintage ex-Ukrainian ship that commissioned in 2012, lack catapults and instead launches her planes via a ramp on her bow.
To produce the Chinese navy’s second carrier, Beijing’s engineers essentially copied Lioaning and her limitations, the Pentagon’s report explained.
“China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier was launched in 2017, completed multiple sea trials during 2018 and will likely join the fleet by the end of 2019. The new carrier is a modified version of the Liaoning but is similarly limited in its capabilities due to its lack of a catapult launch system and a smaller flight deck than the deck on U.S. carriers.”
The ramp layout probably limits aircraft to a maximum launch weight of 30 tons, a former Chinese navy source revealed.
China's J-15 naval fighter weighs nearly 20 tons empty. Fuel usually accounts for most of the available 10-ton payload, limiting the fighter's normal weapons loadout to just a few small missiles. The U.S. Navy's carriers use steam catapults to launch aircraft weighing as much as 50 tons.
The J-15 is a clone of Russia's Su-33 naval fighter. Outwardly, the fighter has a lot in common with U.S., French and British carrier planes. "The J-15 has folding wings, strengthened landing gear, a tailhook under a shortened tail stinger, two-piece slotted flaps, canards and a retractable inflight-refueling probe on the left side of the nose," the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency explained in a January 2019 report.
But China's first flattop suffers serious limitations that reduce the J-15's effectiveness. "The Liaoning’s ski-jump configuration restricts aircraft takeoff weight, limiting maximum ordnance loads and overall combat power."
Moreover, the J-15 must operate with very little support from other aircraft types. "The ski-jump design also means [Liaoning] cannot operate large, specialized support aircraft, such as an [airborne early warning] aircraft," according to the DIA.
Which is not to say Liaoning and her sister ship aren't useful. "Though Liaoning has substantially less capability than a U.S. Navy carrier, it provides extended air-defense coverage for at-sea task groups and is being used to develop further China’s carrier pilots, deck crews and tactics," the Pentagon noted in the 2018 edition of its annual report on the Chinese military.
Beijing’s third carrier likely will be the first with catapults, according to the Pentagon’s May 2019 report.
“China began construction of its second domestically built aircraft carrier in 2018, which will likely be larger and fitted with a catapult launch system. This design will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations. China’s second domestically built carrier is projected to be operational by 2022.”
China's first three flattops probably won’t venture too far from home, the DIA predicted. "The primary purpose of this first domestic aircraft carrier will be to serve a regional defense mission," the intelligence agency claimed. "Beijing probably also will use the carrier to project power throughout the South China Sea and possibly into the Indian Ocean."
But that could change as China’s carrier fleet expands. The Chinese navy could possess as many as six aircraft carriers by the mid-2030s, experts told state media. As many as four could have catapults.
Song Zhongping, a military expert and T.V. commentator, told Global Times that China needs at least five aircraft carriers to execute its military strategy. Wang Yunfei, a retired Chinese navy officer, said Beijing needs six flattops.
Six carriers might allow Beijing to equip each of its regional fleets with two flattops. One vessel could deploy while the other underwent maintenance.