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China to build 4 nuclear aircraft carriers by 2035 to challenge US at sea

China's new Type 001A aircraft carrier docked in August 2017. (GG001213/Wikimedia Commons)
February 08, 2019

China has been stepping up its game in the global power race, and now it plans to boost its naval fleet of aircraft carriers.

The Communist nation intends to add six more aircraft carriers to its fleet by 2035, four of which will be nuclear-powered, in a move seen as a bid to close the gap between China and the U.S. in terms of military capabilities, the South China Morning Post reported Wednesday.

The carriers will include electromagnetic catapults, a system similar to the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) on American carriers. The system provides faster aircraft launches compared to diesel-powered systems.

“China’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with [EMALS-like systems] are expected to join the navy by 2035, bringing the total number of carriers to at least six – although only four will work at the front line,” said Wang Yunfei, a naval expert and retired People’s Liberation Army (PLA) destroyer naval officer.

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“The country needs to keep developing until it is at the same level as the United States,” Wang added.

Chinese President Xi Jinping had directed the PLA to develop modern equipment by 2035, and projected to see the force as a top global power by 2050. He has made repeated calls in recent months for the PLA to prepare for war.

The U.S. maintains 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, in addition to nine amphibious ships that are capable of deploying as carriers, RT News reported.

China currently has just one aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which it commissioned just six years ago. The diesel-powered carrier was purchased from Ukraine.

Testing is also underway on the Type 001A carrier, which is China’s first domestically-produced carrier. It is speculated to enter service in April. Another carrier, Type 002, is in development.

Wang suggested that military spending would not be impacted by the constraints of the economy.

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“Even if the economic downturn has an effect, we can adjust proportions in total military expenditure to make sure naval modernization keeps going,” he said. “For example, we can cut the number of new tanks.

Along with the warships, China is also advancing its aircraft technology. On its agenda is a carrier-based fighter jet that it claims is on par with the U.S. F-35.

Currently, China has just one carrier-based jet, the J-15. The J-15 has a host of problems, including an unstable flight system and a weight that is too heavy to sustain routine carrier launches.

Like other U.S. military technologies, China has had its eye on mirroring the F-35’s capabilities for quite some time in order to boost its carrier operations.