China's Next Aircraft Carrier Could Be Very Special (As in Nuclear Powered)

China's Next Aircraft Carrier Could Be Very Special (As in Nuclear Powered)

Beijing plans to employ nuclear propulsion technology for the project.

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is making major strides toward its ambitious aircraft carrier procurement goals.

Two military insider sources told the South China Morning Post that China’s defense industry is ramping up its efforts to build a fourth aircraft carrier. “Shipbuilders and ship propulsion engineers are keen on making a significant breakthrough with the construction of the fourth carrier,” said one of the sources. “It will be a technological leap for the shipbuilding industry . . . but construction may take longer than for its sister ship due to the different propulsion systems,” the source noted.

A second source added that China’s Central Military Commission is reviewing a proposal from the China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) to employ nuclear propulsion technology for the project.

The CSSC said several years ago that a nuclear-powered aircraft would be a major milestone toward its goal to “realise its strategic transformation and combat-readiness capability in deep waters and open oceans by 2025.” In more concrete terms, nuclear-powered propulsion would better support certain high-energy weapon types like lasers and railguns and potentially leave more room for additional aircraft fuel or weapons. Nuclear propulsion offers other logistical benefits, making ships less dependent on fuel supply lines; this can potentially improve response times and enhance the carrier’s operational flexibility.

PLAN currently operates two aircraft carriers. Type 001 Liaoning was built from the hulk of the Soviet Kuznetsov-class aircraft cruiser Riga that China purchased from Ukraine in 1998. Liaoning was extensively refitted between 2011 and 2018, re-entering service in China’s Navy in the late 2010s. The conventionally powered Shandong is China’s first domestically-built aircraft carrier, commissioned in 2019 on the heels of at least nine sea trials. China’s third, yet-unnamed aircraft carrier is unlikely to be nuclear-powered. The vessel may, instead, feature an integrated electric propulsion (IEP) system that is more fuel-efficient and can offer better response times than the conventional steam turbine system of its Shandong counterpart. The inclusion of an IEP system will enable the use of electromagnetic (EM) launch catapults, one of the core design features outlined by PLAN for its next aircraft carrier.

The third aircraft carrier, unofficially referred to as the Type 003, is slated to be launched this year. Earlier reports suggested that the aircraft carrier will be launched by July 1 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, but it remains unclear if China’s defense sector can feasibly meet this ambitious timeline.  

PLAN seeks to operate as many as six carrier strike groups by 2035, with other sources adding that China aims to procure a total of ten aircraft carriers—a combination of nuclear and conventionally-powered vessels—by 2049. China’s rush to become an aircraft carrier superpower is a core component of its far-reaching naval modernization program, further reflected by its expanding roster of nuclear-powered submarines and specialized destroyers. A large, modern aircraft carrier fleet stands to greatly enhance China’s power projection capabilities in the East and South China Seas. This is where Beijing is locked in military competition with the United States and faces mounting challenges from India and various neighboring Pacific states.

Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest. 

Image: Reuters