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Reports: China planning nuke-powered aircraft carrier with catapult launch systems

China's new Type 001A aircraft carrier docked in August 2017. (GG001213/Wikimedia Commons)
December 17, 2020

China is planning more advanced features for its third and fourth aircraft carriers, including aircraft launch catapults for both and, reportedly, a nuclear propulsion system for the fourth.

In February, the Chinese state-run Global Times described plans for China to add a catapult launch system on its third carrier. In November, the Eurasian Times reported the catapult launch system will be on China’s third planned aircraft carrier and China similarly plans a catapult system and a nuclear propulsion system for its fourth aircraft carrier.

China’s Shandong aircraft carrier uses a “Short Take-Off, Barrier Arrested Recovery” (STOBAR) ramp system to launch its aircraft. While STOBAR launch systems are prevalent across many countries aircraft carriers, thus far only U.S aircraft carriers and France’s Charles De Gaulle have used the more advanced catapult systems to launch aircraft, known as “Catapult Assisted Take-Off Barrier Arrested Recovery” (CATOBAR).

A catapult system has advantages over the ramp systems most countries use for their carriers. According to the International Business Times, an aircraft launched by a catapult is able to carry more fuel and weapons than it would if launched by a ramp. Such an improvement on its aircraft carriers would thus give additional advantages to its aircraft in combat settings.

Global Times reported the Chinese carrier catapult system on its third aircraft carrier will be electromagnetic. U.S. aircraft carriers have used steam-powered catapults. The U.S. has also considered electromagnetic designs, though President Donald Trump has criticized the idea. The U.S. aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford does have an electromagnetic catapult, known as an “Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System” (EMALS) but the system has suffered failures in recent test uses, according to USNI News.

China is continuing efforts to advance its Navy. The PLAN surpassed the U.S. Navy for most warships of any type in 2019 and it continued to grow its lead in sheer numbers of warships in 2020, though the U.S. still has more aircraft carriers than China, including 11 aircraft carriers, which all use catapult launchers and nuclear propulsion. In addition to 11 full-fledged carriers, the U.S. also has Wasp and America-class amphibious assault ships that can launch short-takeoff aircraft like the AV-8B Harrier and the F-35B Lighting.

China has also rapidly expanded its submarine force, replacing older submarine models with newer ones. China is reportedly on pace to have more submarines than the U.S. by 2030.