The Chinese Navy is building assault carriers to support amphibious operations, like a possible invasion of Taiwan or landings on disputed islands in the South China Sea.
The first two ships, called LHDs (landing helicopter docks) in naval terminology, are still being outfitted. But information is already emerging suggesting that the follow-on design, the Type-076, will have much more firepower.
The Chinese Navy, officially known as the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), is still new to the assault carrier game.
Their current LHDs, which have yet to enter service, are the Type-075. These feature a spacious flight deck and are generally equivalent to the U.S. Navy’s America Class assault carrier. They can carry helicopters, including rotor-wing drones, and hovercraft. But it seems unlikely that they will host jet aircraft or UAVs (uncrewed air vehicles). Not so the Type-076.
A document circulating on the Chinese internet appears to be a request for proposals for the next generation of assault carrier. While it cannot be verified, it does appear to reflect the direction of PLAN thinking. It indirectly lays out the specification for the ship in the form of a list of systems and features. If it is broadly correct, then the Type-076 will carry jet aircraft of some sort.
We can infer this because a key new system will be an electromagnetic aircraft launch system, or EMALS, the 21st century equivalent to the steam catapult used for launching planes from aircraft carriers. A similar system is fitted to the U.S. Navy’s Ford Class aircraft carriers.
China’s own next generation aircraft carrier is also reported to have EMALS, so China has a working knowledge of the technology. The U.S,. Navy has reportedly suffered teething problems, however. We should not assume that China will face the same issues, but it is a brand new technology so there are development risks involved.
Having EMALs on an assault carrier could be a significant game changer for China. It would allow it to carry jet aircraft, such as fighters or large UAVs. UAVs with an offensive weapons load are term UCAVs (uncrewed combat air vehicles). These could greatly increase air support for landing operations.
I asked B.A. Friedman, a military analyst focused on amphibious warfare and author of On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle, what he thinks the implications of the EMALs would be. “There are no disadvantages to having jets on an LHD. But there trade-offs to the type of jets you can put on it. They need a lot of runway or they need to be VTOL [vertical take-off and landing], which itself has advantages and disadvantages. And jets tear up the deck plating faster than propeller aircraft.”
The EMALs approach suggests that the aircraft would not be VTOL. But what the aircraft would be is open to speculation. China may be developing a fighter aircraft suitable for relatively small flight decks of the LHD. For context, many Western LHDs are slated to carry the F-35 Lighting-II strike fighter. The current J-11 version of the famous Flanker, used aboard Chinese aircraft carriers, is likely too large.
But it may relate to a UCAV. These could benefit from being smaller than the equivalent crewed aircraft. The GJ-11 Sharp Sword is one design for a stealthy UCAV that China has been developing. Its payload is estimated to be around 4,400 lbs, which is at the lower end for warplanes. Another, the Flying Dragon-2, is expected to fly in 2021. This promises to still be light enough to operate from the Type-076’s 30-plus ton capacity aircraft lifts, but lift some 13,227 lbs of weapons. Something like these would require a catapult to operate for an assault carrier.
Friedman is cautious about how quickly these new capabilities can be developed. Learning how to use regular assault carriers, let alone ones with UCAVs, could take years. Friedman says that it is not like they can ask, ” ‘How do you guys normally do this?’ They have never done it. It could be years.”
All the same the PLAN is building its capabilities as an astonishing rate. No sooner have we become used to seeing the Type-075 LHD, which was seen as a massive step forward less than a year ago, and already we are on to the next generation. The possible RFP documents give us an inkling about what the Type-076 may be like, but until we see one we will still be guessing.”