China is continuing its rapid expansion of naval assets with the construction of what promises to be their third aircraft carrier, according to reports out of the region.

Currently, China has only one operational carrier, the Liaoning, which is technically a sister ship to Russia’s troubled Admiral Kuznetsov. The hull of the Liaoning was purchased from Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union, permitting China an inexpensive chance field their own flag-ship carrier. However, in recent years, China’s People’s Liberation Army has been undergoing a massive modernization and expansion effort, which has included the launch of at least twenty new Naval vessels since 2016 alone. Included among those new ships are the Type 001A, China’s first ever domestically produced aircraft carrier slated to enter into service later this year, and the Type 055 destroyer, rumored to be a match for American destroyers in the Pacific.

Apparently, China already has work underway on their second home-built Type 001 carrier, which commenced after being granted approval by the Chinese government last March. The hull is still under development, and isn’t expected to move forward to the next stage of construction for another year or two. This new carrier is supposed to be the most advanced of the three in China’s stable to date, and according to experts, plans for a fourth carrier are already underway. China reportedly expects to be able to field four completed carrier battle groups by 2030.

The new carrier is expected to be equipped an electromagnetic aircraft launch system that is significantly more advanced that those fielded on either Chinese or Russian vessels to date. In fact, the only operational ship on the planet utilizing such a launch methodology is the USS Gerald R. Ford, America’s latest and most advanced super carrier. Though, reports have indicated that even the Ford has had some difficulty managing the new technology. In theory, this launch system increases combat capability by reducing wear and tear on aircraft and allowing for a more rapid reset, so more aircraft can be launched in the same window of time.

Chinese J-31 (F60) at the 2014 Zhuhai Air Show (Wikimedia Commons)

China is also currently developing the J-31, a fighter jet believed to be based on stolen plans for America’s 5th generation fighter, the F-35. If the J-31 is built in a Navy variant similar to the employed by the F-35, it could mean China’s new carrier could also be the only one on the planet launching fifth generation fighters that weren’t sourced from within the United States. Until then, the ship will also fly China’s J-15s.

The new carrier is expected to boast a displacement of around 80,000 tonnes, which would make it about 10,000 tonnes larger than its sister ship the Liaoning or the new British HMS Queen Elizabeth, and about 20,000 tonnes shy of the USS Gerald R. Ford.

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This is a significant development in the geopolitical theater, which has yet to see a single nation come close to boasting a carrier fleet comparable to the United States. With 10 operational Nimitz Class Carriers, one new Ford Class carrier, and as many as eight smaller vessels other nations would qualify as carriers (though the U.S. does not), America’s naval supremacy around the globe is unquestioned, but China doesn’t need to compete with America everywhere; they currently have their sights set on the South China Sea.

Territorial claims in the South China Sea; courtesy of Wikipedia

Despite numerous nations laying claim to portions of the heavily trafficked waterway, China has grown increasingly aggressive in their claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea. In recent months, China has even going so far as to build up artificial islands for defensive assets and fortifications, and even run Vietnamese oil drillers off of their own platforms, as well as pressing other nations, like the Philippines, out of their own territory.

 

Image courtesy of the Associated Press