MELBOURNE, Australia — China has reportedly achieved a breakthrough on a conventional propulsion system for its next carrier, which would allow it to operate advanced catapults for launching aircraft without necessitating the use of nuclear propulsion.
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper, quoting sources close to China’s People’s Liberation Army, reported that a team led by China’s top naval engineer, Rear Adm. Ma Weiming, has developed a medium-voltage, direct-current transmission network to replace an earlier system based on alternating current.
Forming part of an integrated propulsion system, the new system would allow a conventionally powered aircraft carrier to operate an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS, which conveys a number of advantages over traditional steam catapults that include increased efficiency, precision and shortening aircraft launch cycles.
The source also said the Central Military Commission, chaired by President Xi Jinping, had wanted China’s next aircraft carrier to be fitted with EMALS, but designers had up to now been stymied by the power requirements of the system and whether a non-nuclear-powered ship will be able to generate enough power to operate it.
With this breakthrough, China will now be able to proceed with plans to build its third aircraft carrier, which is expected to be in the 80,000-ton range and capable of carrying a more well-rounded air group if it is fitted with catapults as planned.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, has been operating a pair of catapults at its carrier training base at Huangdicun since the second half of 2016. The pair are believed to consist of a single steam catapult and one EMALS. The service is evaluating both systems and carrying out test launches using a modified Shenyang J-15 (Flying Shark) carrierborne fighter jet.
The PLAN currently has one aircraft carrier — the Liaoning, which is a refurbished and modernized Soviet-era Kuznetsov-class carrier — in service with another, locally built ship currently fitting out. The latter ship is a slightly modified version of the Liaoning, and both are equipped with a ski jump, which is used to launch the J-15.
However, the use of ski jumps places operational limitations to the PLAN’s carriers, as they are unable to launch larger and heavier aircraft like the U.S. Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft or the C-2 Greyhound carrier on-board delivery aircraft. The PLAN currently operates a version of the Changhe Z-18 transport helicopter fitted with a multimode active electronically scanned array radar on board the Liaoning as its airborne early warning platform.
However, compared to a fixed-wing turboprop aircraft like the Hawkeye, a helicopter has significantly reduced endurance and operating altitude, which results in a significantly reduced time on station and radar range, respectively.
The new power-generating system could allow PLAN warships to be armed with modern weapons like electromagnetic rail guns and directed-energy weapons. In March, Ma had told state broadcaster CCTV that the “ultimate aim” of his work on the integrated propulsion system was to “solve the problem of deploying high-energy weapons” from its ships.
He has also subsequently claimed that China’s EMALS technology was more advanced and more reliable than the system used on the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford. The Ford marked its first aircraft launches using EMALS during post-commissioning trials in July.
Its development in the U.S. Navy has, however, been beset with problems, particularly concerning reliability while testing modifications of EMALS, which are meant to allow it to launch the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler while carrying external fuel tanks.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News. He wrote his first defense-related magazine article in 1998 before pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Following a stint in engineering, he became a freelance defense reporter in 2013 and has written for several media outlets.