Asia Get Ready: Is This China’s Vision of Future Aircraft Carrier Designs?

December 8, 2014 Topic: Security Region: China Blog Brand: The Buzz

Asia Get Ready: Is This China’s Vision of Future Aircraft Carrier Designs?

A high-caliber model manufacturer may just have provided a unique glimpse into the Chinese vision of aircraft carriers to come.

As for the model of CV19, it appears identical to that of CV18. The goal seems to be to develop a “Ford class with Chinese characteristics,” and then build additional hull(s).

Weighing the Evidence

There are problems with these models—and particularly their nameplates, to be sure, but the models do suggest a development path. A design concept appears to be gelling that incorporates three elevators, point defenses, and moving the island aft. Jinshuai Model Crafts’ rendition of CV17 resembles a plausible embodiment of a near-term Chinese effort to surpass the Project 11436 class with indigenous effort, particularly with regard to the propulsion plant and bow shape. CV18 and 19, by contrast, appear to be aspirational: an extrapolation based on what China likely wants to do in the future. To paraphrase paramount leader Xi Jinping, this is the “Chinese carrier dream.” And in today’s China, such dreams sell both Party politics and ship models. But even Chinese possession of specific carrier plans is no guarantee of success. Depending on how CV17 actually proceeds and what Chinese naval architects and shipbuilders learn in the process, CV18 and CV19 could end up quite different in reality—different by design.

Developing a Sino-Ford class would require a great leap forward for elements of Chinese naval architecture and engineering. Bending metal and developing the characteristic hull should be well within the means of China’s shipbuilding industry, but reactors are a different story altogether. While it has made tremendous advances in recent years, and has closed the gap with Russia in key areas, China remains behind in propulsion, metallurgy, and certain specialized physical manufacturing processes. Beijing can import French and German diesels and Ukrainian gas turbines for its navy, but must build naval nuclear reactors on its own. This imposes serious limitations. Most civilian technology is not directly applicable: land-based power plant cores are far too large for confined ship spaces. Case in point: the high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGCR) on which Chinese experts have conducted substantial research require far greater volume for a given power rating than water-based reactors. Additionally, highly-enriched fuel is essential for long core life.

To power such a large ship, at the listed maximum speed, with only two reactors requires an increase in power by about a factor of five or six—a non-trivial increase given that nuclear power plants on surface ships remain volume-limited. Still buying foreign designs for its civilian power sector, China has not yet developed, much less demonstrated, naval nuclear reactors of the required size, density, and overall capability.

The Way Ahead?

If the model shop’s projections are—broadly—reasonable in aggregate, how might we expect China to build and develop these carriers?

Given its status as an improved version of CV16, CV17 would likely be produced in Dalian to capitalize on local experience and production synergies accumulated over several years ofVaryag’s extensive rebuilding into Liaoning. The timetable reported by a local Liaoning Province official suggests that production of CV17 is already underway. Of course, similar words from a PLAN official or shipyard manager would be more demonstrably authoritative. If CV17 production is indeed already underway in Dalian, grand block sections could be under development surreptitiously, but something too large to cover should soon become visible to foreign satellites. As of October 2014, however, Google Earth showed only merchant vessels in Dalian’s graving docks. In addition, nothing has appeared in any of the graving docks at Shanghai’s Changxing Island Shipyard. The facility has made a prototype cross-section similar in configuration to one seen from a Queen Elizabeth-class carrier. But the prototype hull section remains standing in the storage area in front of one of the docks. No additional work appears to have been done on it. Here, the shipyard, currently-out-of-place with respect to carrier production, appears intent to prove that it is capable too. Perhaps that is yet another sign that things will soon become more interesting for foreign observers of Dalian’s naval shipyard production.

A larger question concerns where the Sino-Ford class would be constructed. Given its cutting-edge new-build facilities and ample space for dedicated military production (in contrast to old, cramped Dalian), Shanghai’s Changxing Island looks promising. But wherever future Chinese nuclear-powered carrier(s) are constructed, their production will represent the first manufacturing of nuclear-powered vessels outside the Huludao submarine production facility on the Yellow Sea. Even if engineers from Huludao are dispatched to offer their expertise as Johnny Appleseeds of Chinese naval nuclear development, this will be a challenging new endeavor for China.

What This Might Mean

Beijing’s path to indigenous carrier development appears to be narrowing and firming up. The desired destination is clearer, even as the journey remains arduous, and the timeline and milestones uncertain. In its typical pattern of emulating and drawing on foreign designs, China appears to be going for the gold standard—the U.S. standard, that is—as quickly as reasonably possible. Top-tier must-haves appear to include American-size hulls, nuclear propulsion, catapults, and advanced wire arrestor gear. Developing new hulls and nuclear propulsion is the first step, improved aircraft can be added in later. As a self-styled great sea power, Beijing is determined to be second to none, even if much work remains to be done to truly get there.

In this regard, a U.S. naval aviator and scholar sounds a note of caution. “It is fascinating that China would throw resources at such ships,” Capt. Robert Rubel (USN-Ret.), former Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies, U.S. Naval War College, told the author. “I know China can build ships more cheaply than the United States can, but such ships will nevertheless be extremely expensive up front, and even more so over time. Without a global naval strategy of exercising command of the sea like the United States has had, the large nuclear aircraft carrier does not have the same meaning to China as ours do to us. These ships may have occasional operational utility in responding to disasters and maybe intimidating to regional neighbors with which China has island and maritime claims disputes, but otherwise they seem to be an attempt to create prestige by cutting metal.”

With respect to these larger questions, the models themselves obviously cannot provide conclusive answers. Chinese shipbuilders and strategists alike have much to contemplate. Only time, and more authoritative data sources, will tell what their options are, and how they choose to exercise them. In the meantime, however, there’s at least one crystal-clear take away: if you haven’t finished your holiday shopping yet, click here immediately to peruse Jinshuai Model Crafts’ many offerings. Such commercial dynamism, which the Soviet Union never enjoyed in any form, may ultimately offer greater indications of China’s ability to support and sustain the production and deployment of new aircraft carriers and other mighty ships upon the sea than any word Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Sergey Georgiyevich Gorshkov could ever put to paper.

And that is why it’s worth at least briefly pondering the latest in injection molding from a civilian shop in southern China.

Editor's Note: The above is being republished with the author's consent. You can read the original version with additional photos of the models here