China’s newly commissioned nuclear-powered submarine is armed with the country’s most powerful submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capable of hitting the US mainland, according to a military source and analysts.
The Type 094A, or Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), was presented last Friday as part of the celebration to mark the 72nd anniversary of the PLA Navy. It was capable of firing the JL-3, or Julang (Big Wave) SLBM with a range over 10,000km (6,200 miles), a source close to the navy said.
“The Type 094A is an upgraded version of the Type 094 that overcame one of the key problems – noise – by improving hydrokinetic and turbulent systems, allowing it to carry the more powerful JL-3,” said the source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
“Before the upgrade, the submarine was armed with the inferior JL-2 that could only hit the northeast United States, but now it’s able to cover the whole American continent.”
According to Forbes, before entering striking distance of the continental United States, the Type 094A subs would have to slip past a cordon of US military bases in the Pacific dubbed the first island chain – exposing the subs to detection and attack by American P-8 anti-sub patrol planes, surface warships and other undersea reconnaissance capabilities.
Chinese submarines have been dogged by the problem of being too noisy and easy to detect but that has largely been remedied in recent years by Chinese naval engineer Rear Adm. Ma Weiming, who is now taking the lead in a cutting-edge propulsion technology, according to state media.
The JL-3 is able to deliver the same multiple warheads, including nuclear warheads like the JL-2 does, the source added without giving more detail.
Each JL-2 missile can be armed with either a single megaton-yield warhead 67 times more powerful than the Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima – or three to eight smaller multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) that can each strike different targets, according to a Forbes report in May last year.
Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Tong said the news indicated that some technical breakthroughs had been achieved to make the JL-2 fit the silos of the Type 094A.
“The original design and size of the JL-3 should be adjusted, but those changes do not reduce its firepower and range – a significant breakthrough,” Wong said.
Former PLA instructor Song Zhongping did not say what type of SLBM the Type 094A was armed with but said it would boost China’s second-strike capability – its ability to retaliate after a nuclear strike.
“The new SLBM with MIRVs with a firing range over 10,000km is the basic technical requirement for an upgraded Type 094 SSBN to cause nuclear deterrence,” he said. “China promises not to use a nuke first but a powerful SSBN fleet will help the PLA strengthen their second-strike power against rivals.”
China has six Type 094 and Type 094A SSBNs and plans to build a further two to replace the Type 092 SSBNs, according to the source.
Sources said last year that the PLA planned to arm the Type 096 submarine with JL-3 missiles, a process that could take years to complete.
Each Type 094 submarine is able to carry 16 JL-3 missiles, but the upgraded Type 096 could carry 24 JL-3s, according to a Pentagon report on China’s military capabilities.
The Type 094A was one of the three new warships put into service on the same day. The others were the Type 075 amphibious helicopter assault ship and the Type 055 Renhai-class guided missile cruiser.
The leaders of China and the United States certainly don’t seek a war with each another. Both the Biden administration and the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping view economic renewal and growth as their principal objectives.
Both are aware that any conflict arising between them, even if restricted to Asia and conducted with non-nuclear weapons – no sure bet – would produce catastrophic regional damage and potentially bring the global economy to its knees. So, neither group has any intention of deliberately starting a war.
Each, however, is fully determined to prove its willingness to go to war if provoked and so is willing to play a game of military chicken in the waters (and air space) off China’s coast. In the process, each is making the outbreak of war, however unintended, increasingly likely.
History tells us that conflicts don’t always begin due to planning and intent. Some, of course, start that way, as was the case, for instance, with Hitler’s June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union and Japan’s December 1941 attacks on the Dutch East Indies and Pearl Harbor. More commonly, though, countries have historically found themselves embroiled in wars they had hoped to avoid.
This was the case in June 1914, when the major European powers – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire – all stumbled into World War I. Following an extremist act of terror (the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo), they mobilized their forces and issued ultimatums in the expectation that their rivals would back off.
None did. Instead, a continent-wide conflict erupted with catastrophic consequences.
Sadly, we face the possibility of a very similar situation in the coming years. The three major military powers of the current era – China, the United States, and Russia – are all behaving eerily like their counterparts of that earlier era.
All three are deploying forces on the borders of their adversaries, or the key allies of those adversaries, and engaging in muscle-flexing and “show-of-force” operations intended to intimidate their opponent(s), while demonstrating a will to engage in combat if their interests are put at risk.
As in the pre-1914 period, such aggressive maneuvers involve a high degree of risk when it comes to causing an accidental or unintended clash that could result in full-scale combat or even, at worst, global warfare.
Provocative military maneuvers now occur nearly every day along Russia’s border with the NATO powers in Europe and in the waters off China’s eastern coastline. Much can be said about the dangers of escalation from such maneuvers in Europe, but let’s instead fix our attention on the situation around China, where the risk of an accidental or unintended clash has been steadily growing.
Bear in mind that, in contrast to Europe, where the borders between Russia and the NATO countries are reasonably well marked and all parties are careful to avoid trespassing, the boundaries between Chinese and US/allied territories in Asia are often highly contested.
China claims that its eastern boundary lies far out in the Pacific – far enough to encompass the independent island of Taiwan (which it considers a renegade province), the Spratly and Paracel Islands of the South China Sea (all claimed by China, but some also claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines), and the Diaoyu Islands (claimed by both China and Japan, which calls them the Senkaku Islands).
The United States has treaty obligations to Japan and the Philippines, as well as a legislative obligation to aid in Taiwan’s defense (thanks to the Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress in 1979) and consecutive administrations have asserted that China’s extended boundary claims are illegitimate.
There exists, then, a vast area of contested territory, encompassing the East and South China Seas – places where US and Chinese warships and planes increasingly intermingle in challenging ways, while poised for combat.
Probing limits (and defying them)
The leaders of the US and China are determined that their countries will defend what it defines as its strategic interests in such contested areas.
For Beijing, this means asserting its sovereignty over Taiwan, the Diaoyu Islands, and the islands of the South China Sea, as well as demonstrating an ability to take and defend such territories in the face of possible Japanese, Taiwanese, or US counterattacks.
For Washington, it means denying the legitimacy of China’s claims and ensuring that its leadership can’t realize them through military means.
Both sides recognize that such contradictory impulses are only likely to be resolved through armed conflict. Short of war, however, each seems intent on seeing how far it can provoke the other, diplomatically and militarily, without triggering a chain reaction ending in disaster.
On the diplomatic front, representatives of the two sides have been engaging in increasingly harsh verbal attacks.
These first began to escalate in the final years of the Trump administration when the president abandoned his supposed affection for Xi Jinping and began blocking access to US technology by major Chinese telecommunications firms like Huawei to go with the punishing tariffs he had already imposed on most of that country’s exports to the US His major final offensive against China would be led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who denounced that country’s leadership in scathing terms, while challenging its strategic interests in contested areas.
In a July 2020 statement on the South China Sea, for instance, Pompeo slammed China for its aggressive behavior there, pointing to Beijing’s repeated “bullying” of other claimants to islands in that sea.
Pompeo, however, went beyond mere insult. He ratcheted up the threat of conflict significantly, asserting that “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law” – language clearly meant to justify the future use of force by American ships and planes assisting friendly states being “bullied” by China.
Pompeo also sought to provoke China on the issue of Taiwan. In one of his last acts in office, on January 9, he officially lifted restrictions in place for more than 40 years on US diplomatic engagement with the government of Taiwan. Back in 1979, when the Carter administration broke relations with Taipei and established ties with the mainland regime, it prohibited government officials from meeting with their counterparts in Taiwan, a practice maintained by every administration since then.
This was understood to be part of Washington’s commitment to a “One China” policy in which Taiwan was viewed as an inseparable part of China (though the nature of its future governance was to remain up for negotiation).
Reauthorizing high-level contacts between Washington and Taipei more than four decades later, Pompeo effectively shattered that commitment. In this way, he put Beijing on notice that Washington was prepared to countenance an official Taiwanese move toward independence – an act that would undoubtedly provoke a Chinese invasion effort (which, in turn, increased the likelihood that Washington and Beijing would find themselves on a war footing).
The Trump administration also took concrete actions on the military front, especially by increasing naval maneuvers in the South China Sea and in waters around Taiwan. The Chinese replied with their own strong words and expanded military activities. In response, for instance, to a trip to Taipei last September by Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Keith Krach, the highest-ranking State Department official to visit the island in 40 years, China launched several days of aggressive air and sea maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait.
According to Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang, those maneuvers were “a reasonable, necessary action aimed at the current situation in the Taiwan Strait protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Speaking of that island’s increasing diplomatic contact with the US, he added, “Those who play with fire will get burned.”
Today, with Trump and Pompeo out of office, the question arises: How will the Biden team approach such issues? To date, the answer is: much like the Trump administration.
In the first high-level encounter between US and Chinese officials in the Biden years, a meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18 and 19, newly installed Secretary of State Antony Blinken used his opening remarks to lambaste the Chinese, expressing “deep concerns” over China’s behavior in its mistreatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang Province, in Hong Kong, and in its increasingly aggressive approach to Taiwan. Such actions, he said, “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability.”
Blinken has uttered similar complaints in other settings, as have senior Biden appointees to the CIA and Department of Defense. Tellingly, in its first months in office, the Biden administration has given the green light to the same tempo of provocative military maneuvers in contested Asian waters as did the Trump administration in its last months.
‘Gunboat diplomacy’ today
In the years leading up to World War I, it was common for major powers to deploy their naval forces in waters near their adversaries or near rebellious client states in that age of colonialism to suggest the likelihood of punishing military action if certain demands weren’t met.
The US used just such “gunboat diplomacy,” as it was then called, to control the Caribbean region, forcing Colombia, for example, to surrender the territory Washington sought to build a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Today, gunboat diplomacy is once again alive and well in the Pacific, with both China and the US engaging in such behavior.
China is now using its increasingly powerful navy and coast guard on a regular basis to intimidate other claimants to islands it insists are its own in the East and South China Seas – Japan in the case of the Senkakus; and Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the case of the Spratlys and Paracels.
In most instances, this means directing its naval and coast guard vessels to drive off the fishing boats of such countries from waters surrounding Chinese-claimed islands. In the case of Taiwan, China has used its ships and planes in a menacing fashion to suggest that any move toward declaring independence from the mainland will be met with a harsh military response.
For Washington in the Biden era, assertive military maneuvers in the East and South China Seas are a way of saying: no matter how far such waters may be from the US, Washington and the Pentagon are still not prepared to cede control of them to China.
This has been especially evident in the South China Sea, where the US Navy and Air Force regularly conduct provocative exercises and show-of-force operations intended to demonstrate America’s continuing ability to dominate the region – as in February, when dual carrier task forces were dispatched to the region.
For several days, the USS Nimitz and the USS Theodore Roosevelt, along with their accompanying flotillas of cruisers and destroyers, conducted mock combat operations in the vicinity of islands claimed by China.
“Through operations like this, we ensure that we are tactically proficient to meet the challenge of maintaining peace and we are able to continue to show our partners and allies in the region that we are committed to promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific,” was the way Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo, commander of the Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, explained those distinctly belligerent actions.
The Navy has also stepped up its patrols of destroyers in the Taiwan Strait as a way of suggesting that any future Chinese move to invade Taiwan would be met with a powerful military response. Already, since President Biden’s inauguration, the Navy has conducted three such patrols: by the USS John S. McCain on February 4, the USS Curtis Wilbur on February 24, and the USS John Finn on March 10.
On each occasion, the Navy insisted that such missions were meant to demonstrate how the US military would “continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows.”
Typically, when the US Navy conducts provocative maneuvers of this sort, the Chinese military – the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA – responds by sending out its own ships and planes to challenge the American vessels.
This occurs regularly in the South China Sea, whenever the Navy conducts what it calls “freedom of navigation operations,” or FONOPs, in waters near Chinese-claimed (and sometimes Chinese-built) islands, some of which have been converted into small military installations by the PLA.
In response, the Chinese often dispatch a ship or ships of its own to escort – to put the matter as politely as possible – the American vessel out of the area. These encounters have sometimes proven exceedingly dangerous, especially when the ships got close enough to pose a risk of collision.
In September 2018, for example, a Chinese destroyer came within 135 feet of the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur on just such a FONOP mission near Gavin Reef in the Spratly Islands, obliging the Decatur to alter course abruptly. Had it not done so, a collision might have occurred, lives could have been lost, and an incident provoked with unforeseeable consequences.
“You are on [a] dangerous course,” the Chinese ship reportedly radioed to the American vessel shortly before the encounter. “If you don’t change course, [you] will suffer consequences.”
What would have transpired had the captain of the Decatur not altered course? On that occasion, the world was lucky: The captain acted swiftly and avoided danger. But what about the next time, with tensions in the South China Sea and around Taiwan at a far higher pitch than in 2018?
Such luck might not hold and a collision, or the use of weaponry to avoid it, could trigger immediate military action on either side, followed by a potentially unpredictable escalating cycle of countermoves leading who knows where.
Under such circumstances, a war nobody wanted between the US and China could suddenly erupt essentially by happenstance – a war this planet simply can’t afford. Sadly, the combination of inflammatory rhetoric at a diplomatic level and a propensity for backing up such words with aggressive military actions in highly contested areas still seems to be at the top of the Sino-American agenda.
Chinese and American leaders are now playing a game of chicken that couldn’t be more dangerous for both countries and the planet. Isn’t it time for the new Biden administration and its Chinese opposite to grasp more clearly and deeply that their hostile behaviors and decisions could have unforeseeable and catastrophic consequences?
Strident language and provocative military maneuvers – even if only intended as political messaging – could precipitate a calamitous outcome, much in the way equivalent behavior in 1914 triggered the colossal tragedy of World War I.
China’s military flights around Taiwan have intensified in recent weeks in what is seen as an effort to test Taiwan and to send a message to its partners, especially the US.
Amid those operations, China appears to be continuing an ongoing effort to improve its military’s ability to fight below the waters off its coast.
In 2020, Chinese aircraft made a record number of flights into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone. China has stepped up those flights this year, adding combat aircraft and setting new records: 20 aircraft in one incursion on March 26, followed by 25 warplanes on April 12.
According to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, many of those flights take place off of southwest Taiwan and include variants of the Shaanxi Y-8 aircraft equipped for reconnaissance or anti-submarine warfare.
The latter capability is particularly important in those waters, where the shallow Taiwan Strait meets the deeper South China Sea. To the east, the Bashi Channel connects them to the Pacific through the Philippine Sea.
The South China Sea’s deep waters are “favorable” for Chinese submarine activity, and the proximity to Taiwan is the reason for “the frequent presence” of anti-submarine aircraft, said Su Tzu-yun, director of the defense strategy and resource division at the Institute for National Defence and Security Studies, a Taiwanese state-backed think-tank.
The Bashi Channel “can be considered as an underwater corridor from which Chinese submarines can enter the Philippine Sea and launch strikes against the US West Coast,” Su told Insider.
Operating and detecting submarines in that area depends on knowledge of water conditions there, which China is working to learn.
“If you want to fight a successful naval war, you had better get your hydrographic information right,” said Lyle Goldstein, a research professor and expert on Chinese undersea warfare at the US Naval War College.
That information affects algorithms used in undersea warfare, and China has been “pulling out all the stops” to understand the currents, temperature, and salinity of those waters, Goldstein told Insider.
“The performance of all those systems is affected by those algorithms, and the Chinese know that,” Goldstein said, “They are working absolutely overtime.”
The geography around the first island chain – the islands immediately off East Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines – creates challenges and opportunities for submarine warfare.
“China has this kind of perennial strategic problem of geography,” Goldstein said. “To egress their submarines is quite difficult because they have to maneuver through the island chains.”
“You can bet they’re working very hard on making it as hard as they can for the US to know when Chinese submarines are going out and how they do it,” Goldstein added.
The shallowness of the Taiwan Strait inhibits submarine operations, but the currents, temperatures, and salinity create “a really tough acoustic environment,” according to Bryan Clark, an expert on naval warfare at the Hudson Institute and a former submarine officer.
The latter conditions make it harder to detect submarines – an acute problem for US forces tasked with finding Chinese subs in a conflict. The Chinese, however, will likely “just wait for the US [submarines] to start doing something that they can detect,” such as firing torpedoes or missiles, Clark said.
China has rolled out an array of assets that improve its ability to do that, including anti-submarine-warfare ships, undersea monitoring sensors, and advanced helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
“China just in the last five years has started fielding units of serious anti-submarine aircraft,” Goldstein said, citing the Gaoxin-6, an improved anti-submarine variant of the Y-8/9 aircraft.
“They had helicopters that could do anti-submarine warfare, but this is quite new, to have these large fixed-wing planes that drop on sonobuoys and look for submarines,” Goldstein added.
China still has anti-submarine-warfare shortcomings. Its sonar and sonobuoys “aren’t very sophisticated,” Clark said. “They’re easily two generations behind where the US and NATO are and … at least one generation behind Japan.”
The combination of assets and capabilities likely means China will focus on thwarting offensive operations by US subs rather than proactively hunting them, Clark said. Despite US submarines’ familiarity with the area, the confined waters there would limit their ability to evade attacks, meaning they’d likely back off in the face of Chinese pressure.
“The idea would be if a potential submarine is detected, they would send these aircraft, like the Y-8, out there to drop weapons on them,” Clark said. “They’re going to make sure that their own submarines are not in the area and use that to suppress US submarine operations.”
“The fact that the Chinese are developing this, essentially, [anti-submarine warfare] response capability means that US submarines are going to have a more limited impact on any confrontation with the Chinese over something like Taiwan,” Clark added.
‘China is extremely worried’
China’s efforts to improve its maritime awareness aren’t limited to waters around Taiwan.
Last year, Australian officials said a Chinese ship off that country’s western coast was likely mapping routes Australian subs use to access the South China Sea. In December, Indonesian fisherman found a suspected Chinese underwater drone, which was seen as a sign of China trying gather information needed for submarine operations near Australia.
China is not alone in these efforts.
India, which recently clashed with China on their disputed land border, has stepped up efforts to monitor the Indian Ocean, especially around the Malacca Strait, which connects that ocean to the Pacific.
Last year, the US reportedly asked Indonesia to allow P-8 maritime patrol planes land and refuel there, giving them another operating location around the South China Sea; Indonesia denied the request. The recovery of underwater drones near China’s coast also suggests the US is gathering data on the waters there.
“China is extremely worried about our submarine force … because they know that it would be hard for them to hunt our submarines, and our submarines have quite a devastating punch,” Goldstein said. “They’re really trying to do everything they can to understand where our submarines are and how could Beijing possibly counter them.”
As the world’s two biggest naval fleets engage in the Indo-Pacific region, China’s People’s Liberation Army can observe and learn from the United States Navy in adapting future tactical combined operations, according to defence analysts.
The USS Makin Island is a 40,000-tonne Wasp-class amphibious assault ship able to carry a detachment of Marine F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters. The LHD and two San Antonio-class landing platform dock (LPD) amphibious transport ships – the USS Somerset and USS San Diego – as well as several helicopter and assault craft units form the Makin Island ARG.
“The displacement size and functions of the Wasp-class LHD are similar to the PLA’s Type 075 LHD, while the San Antonio-class transport docks are similar to China’s Type 071 landing platform docks (LPD),” Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said.
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the PLA would learn from the experiences of its American counterpart in turning its LHD and LPD into mini-aircraft carrier strike groups, an effective cost-saving measure.
“The US has studied how to operate their ARG in a more feasible and efficient way,” Li said.
“For China, the key mission of their Type 075 and Type 071 will be defending the country’s territorial sovereignty in the East and South China seas, as well as overseas interests, meaning the ARG combination is a better option than aircraft carrier strike groups.”
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said deploying both LHDs and LPDs indicated the US Navy’s capacity for tactical manoeuvres and joint cooperation on the high seas.
“The combination of LHD and LPD is an integrated expeditionary strike group, which is worth the PLA learning from if they are going to better deploy their Type 075 and Type 071 amphibious warships,” Wong said.
China has launched three Type 075 LHDs, which were designed to each carry up to 30 attack helicopters and armoured vehicles, and eight smaller Type 071 LPDs with the displacement of 25,000 tonnes.
The Type 075 is the world’s third largest amphibious assault vessel behind the USS Wasp and America classes. It is bigger than Japan’s Izumo class and France’s Mistral class.
However, Song said that in addition to the amphibious ships, the most powerful weapon of the Makin Island ARG were the F-35B squadrons and detachments of multi-role helicopters suited to different types of sea warfare missions.
“The most challenging problem of the PLA is a lack of new-generation fixed-wing carrier-based aircraft like the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter jets,” Song said.
“The F-35B helps the USS Marines grab air supremacy in both ARG operations, making its function like that of the mini-carrier strike groups … that means the US Navy owns nearly 20 carrier strike groups around the world.”
To solve the current shortcomings, Song suggested the PLA install a catapult on the deck of the Type 075 LHD to upgrade the platform and allow it to operate the country’s carrier-based J-15 fighter jet.
The US Navy was reported to have tested the idea of smaller carriers, which would reduce the range, speed and capacity of its US$13 billion nuclear-powered supercarriers known as CVNs, but cost half as much or even less, Forbes reported in December.
The ARG operation could be seen as testing a mini-carrier option, an exercise China could learn from, Song and Li said.
The release of a new state media video of China’s Shandong aircraft carrier suggests the giant vessel might soon be heading out on the high seas as it continues its preparations to become combat-ready, according to a military insider.
“The Shandong will probably start its drills and training on the high seas later this year, which is a necessary step for it to achieve initial operational capability [IOC],” a source close to the navy said.
State broadcaster China Central Television released the footage on Tuesday, showing how the carrier had been continuing with its preparations despite the world being gripped by the coronavirus pandemic.
“After being handed over to the navy [from the shipbuilder], it takes at least 18 months for an aircraft carrier to achieve IOC as there are thousands of items to test and approve,” said Zhou Chenming, a researcher at the Yuan Wang military think tank in Beijing.
According to the CCTV video, the Shandong, which is China’s first domestically developed aircraft carrier, features 12,000 different equipment systems.
While the Shandong has already conducted nine sea trails, they were all in Bohai Bay or the South China Sea, which was relatively close to its home base in Sanya, Hainan province, according to Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.
He agreed that the CCTV video suggested the vessel was now ready to take to the high seas.
“The Shandong will sail through the first island chain – as its sister ship the Liaoning did before it – to the western Pacific, for its first high-sea exercises,” he said.
Because of Covid-19 restrictions, much of the CCTV footage was shot by members of the Shandong’s crew. It took television viewers inside the 20-storey accommodation and operations block that towers above the deck of the ship and gave them a brief insight into the day-to-day lives of the 5,000 sailors who call the vessel home.
The video also provided information about the Shandong’s ski-jump for launching jets and its powerful cannons capable of firing 10,000 rounds a minute. A CCTV reporter said the angle of the ski-jump was 14 degrees, and not 12 degrees as many experts had guessed.
“China Shipbuilding Industry Corp [which built the Shandong] has never announced the angle, but the blueprint for the Liaoning shows that the angle on its ramp is [also] 14 degrees,” Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said.
“But based on the thrust of the J-15 fighter jet, many experts believed the ramp angle on the Shandong would have to be reduced a little,” he said.
Hong Kong-based military commentator Liang Guoliang said the ski-jump angle on the Liaoning – a Soviet-designed Kuznetsov-class carrier China bought from Ukraine in 1998 – was designed to accommodate Russian Su-33 Flanker fighters.
“Four options for the ski-jump ramp angle – eight, 12, 14 and 16 degrees – were tested,” Liang said. “More powerful aircraft need a lower angle, and it’s a fact that China’s J-15 is more powerful than the Su-33.”
In November, PLA pilot Peng Gaofei was killed in a crash during a flight exercise from the Shandong. He was the second J-15 fighter jet pilot to die since 2016, when Zhang Chao was killed due to a problem with the flight control system in his aircraft.
After a two-year delay because of technical problems, construction work on the vessel resumed earlier this year, the South China Morning Post reported in January, citing a military source.
“Shipbuilders and ship propulsion engineers are keen on making a significant breakthrough with the construction of the fourth carrier,” a source close to the Chinese navy said on condition of anonymity.
“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.”
China already has two operational aircraft carriers and a third – to which the source was referring – is expected to be launched this year. None are nuclear powered.
A second source, who also asked not to be identified, said the Central Military Commission was studying a proposal by China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) to use nuclear power for the fourth carrier.
He declined to say whether a decision had been made, but said it would be a “very bold decision that is full of challenges.”
The CSSC said in February 2018 it had started developing a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which would help the PLA Navy to “realise its strategic transformation and combat-readiness capability in deep waters and open oceans by 2025.”
In 2019, China General Nuclear Power Group invited bids for a contract to build a 30,000-tonne nuclear-powered ship, which it described as an “experimental platform.”
The first source said the “experimental platform” was intended as a way to test the nuclear reactors that would later be installed on aircraft carriers.
Notices released by the PLA last year showed it had bought a series of reports on how to build a nuclear propulsion system. The PLA has more than a dozen nuclear-powered submarines, including the Type 091, Type 093 and Type 095.
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said a nuclear power system would not only enable the aircraft carriers’ electromagnetic catapult systems to operate more smoothly but also support high-energy weapons like laser and rail guns.
“Also, the control tower island on a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is much smaller than a conventionally powered platform so it frees up more space for aircraft,” he said.
It is not known how big China’s fourth aircraft carrier will be, but its third has a displacement of about 85,000 tonnes.
Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy, said if the PLA decided to use nuclear power for its fourth aircraft carrier, it was possible the CSSC might in the future convert the steam turbines on its conventionally powered sister ship into nuclear reactors.
The PLA did something similar with the Liaoning – its first aircraft carrier, which was based on an unfinished Soviet vessel that China bought from Ukraine in 1998 – after seeing how new technologies worked on the country’s first domestically developed carrier, the Shandong, Lu said.
The Liaoning, which joined the PLA Navy in 2012, underwent a lengthy retrofit between late 2018 and early 2019.
Images released online by the CSSC showed that the design and size of the control tower on the third carrier is similar to the one on the Liaoning and Shandong, which Li said was the “normal design” for a conventionally powered vessel.
“Conventionally powered carriers need a bigger control tower because of the need for chimneys for the emissions,” he said.
Other reports published online said China’s third aircraft carrier would be launched by July 1, which marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
But Zhou Chenming, a researcher with the Beijing-based military think tank Yuan Wang, said that was unlikely as “quality assurance is always the top priority” on carrier projects.
“Weapon systems are built for combat, not to celebrate special days,” he said.
China’s navy said earlier it planned to launch at least six aircraft carrier strike groups by 2035, in a bid to match the naval strength of the United States in the Pacific region.