As the U.S. plans to increase its naval power projection in the Asia Pacific theater as a show of force to North Korea, it bears noting that the once bush league People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is now, at least on its surface, far closer to achieving a level playing field. China has long since had a goal of fielding a true, blue water navy that could rival its western frenemies. For years that seemed like a pipe dream as Chinese platforms lacked the sophistication and engineering prowess to accomplish their mission. Thanks to aggressive recruitment of Western engineers and continued illegal pilfering of U.S. technology and doctrine, that pipedream is looking more like a reality. China’s next generation carrier will have similar appearance to its U.S. counterpart in shape, design and overall flight deck space.
The PLAN used various open source and illicit means to obtain and copy as many aspects of U.S. carrier operations, methods and TTPs as possible, down to steam catapult launch systems with an eye on electromagnetic launching in the near future. The PLAN debuted its Type 001A carrier earlier this year, promising tremendous technological improvements with its Type 002 carrier due out sometime in 2020.
Along with catapult system improvements, the PLAN is aggressively working on heavy-duty, F-class gas turbine engines, installation of additional bridge decks, and new flat paneled Type 346s series AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radars. These smaller radars allow for targeting and fire control, which mean ability for datalink with missiles launched from other ships and aircraft, ultimately extending their range.
There was also a flurry of aircraft related activity over the summer, with a second prototype J-31 stealth fighter making additional flights as well as the spotting of a J-15 with an inflight refueling pod. A third J-31 prototype capable of operation on catapult-equipped carriers is expected any day now. Though the skill of the Chinese pilots remains a reasonable question, the J-31’s could prove to be decent competition for the USN’s F-35C.
Insiders believe that looking beyond the Type 002 carrier to the Type 003 could yield a true super carrier, meaning nuclear power and a potential for 90,000 ton displacement. The Chinese hope the Type 003 can be the home for some of their more lofty pet tech projects such as lasers and railguns, stealth drone bombers and sixth generation fighter aircraft.
The technology seems to be on track but the ability to wield it with the same capability as the U.S. remains a mystery. For years the Chinese relied on the Russians for their training; training for which the Russians withheld the highest quality for themselves. With the Korean Peninsula continuing to heat up, and the Chinese and Russians both pushing their frenemy status to new heights, I don’t expect to see this advance slow down anytime soon.
Since recruiting quality sailors and pilots to field this more impressive PLAN is a priority, perhaps next we should expect to see a Chinese version of Top Gun coming to theaters across the PRC. 特立独行 and 鹅 has a nice ring to it don’t you think?