According to recent news reports, China’s third aircraft carrier, which is still under construction and won’t be hitting the waves anytime soon, could be fitted with an advanced type of aircraft launch system—likely an electromagnetic catapult. While details of the Type 002 carrier remain murky at best, it is known that the warship won’t use a ramp to assist in aircraft takeoffs.
The South Morning China Post reported last month that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been conducting test flights of the KJ-600, a carrier-based early warning aircraft. It is a medium-sized, twin-engine reconnaissance plane similar in design to the U.S. military’s E-2 Hawkeye series. The Chinese aircraft, which was first spotted in August 2020, was noted for featuring a large electronically scanned array radar. That could make it capable of spotting stealth aircraft including the U.S. military’s F-22 Raptor and/or F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.
State broadcaster CCTV also confirmed that the KJ-600, which is China’s first domestically developed fixed-wing early warning aircraft, conducted a test flight in late January near Xian, Shaanxi province.
The reconnaissance aircraft was developed to operate from a carrier, but it has been noted that its weight along with turboprop engines require that it uses a catapult for take-off. The U.S. Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye also requires a catapult to assist in take-offs from carriers. As both of the PLAN’s two operational carriers—Liaoning and Shangdong—utilize sky jump ramps to assist in aircraft launches, it is likely the KJ-600 is being developed specifically for the Type 002 carrier.
There would be other advantages besides just deploying the KJ-600 on the still-under-construction carrier—catapult-equipped carriers can launch larger, heavier aircraft and it also means that aircraft use less fuel in take-off and so can carry additional weapons and even fly longer range sorties.
The U.S. Navy’s Nimitz-class carriers utilize time-tested steam-driven catapults, while the new Ford-class carriers employ electromagnetic catapults, which are not only stronger but are more efficient than their steam-driven counterparts. The fact that China may be developing a catapult-based aircraft and most certainly a catapult system, suggests that Beijing has made some significant advances in aircraft launch technology in recent years.
The PLAN’s third carrier is now under construction at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. There has been no official confirmation about the design, but open-source satellite images over the shipyard indicate the vessel will be much bigger than its predecessors, the South China Morning Post reported.
The paper quoted Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military expert, who said that it is likely the next Chinese carrier will be conventionally powered, yet still equipped with an electromagnetic catapult system.
“The research and development of military equipment is supposed to be synchronized,” Song added. “It is hard to imagine that one type of equipment will be ready and waiting idle [before the other is operational].”
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.