China’s first domestically built carrier, “Type 001A”, is making brisk progress in its Dalian drydock. Tracing its design to the Soviet Admiral Kuznetsov class of aircraft carriers, the Type 001A will displace around 60,000-70,000 tons, is powered by steam turbines, and will carry between 30 and 40 helicopters and J-15 fighter jets. Type 001A first began construction in late 2014, and is expected to be launched in 2017, with commissioning in 2019-2020 timeframe. Since the beginning of the year, many modules have been assembled, including the below-deck hangar bay, openings for aircraft elevators, and in new photos, the ship’s ski jump soon to be welded to the carrier’s front.
Short Takeoff But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) type aircraft carriers differ from aircraft carriers like the USN’s Nimitz class (which uses catapults to boost aircraft into the skies) in that they use a ski ramp mounted at the aircraft carrier’s front to set the launching aircraft at an forward and upwards trajectory. The Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, uses ski ramps to launch its J-15 jet fighters.
The advantage of STOBAR carriers is that they are simpler to build and operate than a catapault, not to mention cheaper. That comes at a price; they are only suitable for launching fighter/attack jets, which have a high enough thrust/weight ratio to reach high speeds needed to launch off a ski ramp. (Some fighter jets, like the J-15, have enough engine output to take off with a useful surface attack load and decent fuel load.) Subsonic aircraft, such as transport aircraft, airborne early warning and anti-submarine warfare aircraft are unable to launch off a ski ramp. This limits the aircraft carrier’s varied support aircraft to slower and smaller helicopter platforms.
Of course, the Type 001A is still far from completion, and even when the hull itself is finished and launched, it will require years more of work to install electronics, crew amenities, and aircraft maintenance equipment. However, it should be able to run up to full capacity more rapid than its sister ship the Liaoning, since the PLAN will have nearly a decade of experience in operating carriers by this point. Like the Liaoning, it will play a critical role in building up China’s carrier pilot cadre, in addition to providing air defense and limited surface strike capabilities for Chinese surface warfare mission near and far aboard.
The deployment of a ski ramp, though, doesn’t mean this is the plan for following Chinese carriers. To look into the future, we need to look south at Huangdicun, Liaoning, where the PLAN is getting ready to test aircraft carrier catapults. Satellite imagery dating to early 2016 shows the construction of two parallel catapult trenches at the test site; the wider trench is suspected to be equipped for a Electromagnetically Assisted Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) catapult. First used by the Ford class carrier, a EMALS catapult uses a linear motor drive, instead of steam pistons on older catapults, to accelerate the catapult shuttle holding the aircraft’s nosegear on the flight deck. Compared to steam catapautls, EMALS catapults are less maintenance intensive, mechanically simpler and have greater power and flexibility to launch aircraft of different sizes. If the Chinese EMALS catapult is selected and successful, the future Chinese aircraft carriers would be a truly formidable force.
Thanks to Vincent at China Defense Forum for noting the correct province Huangdicun is located in.
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