New US warships will prompt PLA to play catch-up
Advances in US naval firepower are likely to speed up Beijing's drive for sophisticated weapons it says it needs for self-defence
Beijing is closely monitoring the US' development of two new, highly advanced marine warfare ships which will likely operate in Asia-Pacific in the coming years, several analysts say.
Their deployment would prompt China to intensify efforts to accelerate the technological prowess of its navy, and ensure it could adequately defend against the sophisticated weaponry, said Li Jie , an analyst with the PLA Navy.
The United States is expected to officially unveil next month the first ship in its Ford-class aircraft carriers, the successor to the Nimitz-class design. According to US Congressional documents, the nuclear-powered vessels can handle a quarter more aircraft sorties, and generate more power to support ship systems, all while requiring several hundred fewer sailors for its crew.
Two additional carriers are scheduled to become operational by 2025. The total cost has been estimated at US$43 billion.
The US on Monday also put the Zumwalt into the water ahead of its final phase of construction. The ship is 30 metres longer than the existing class of destroyers, the Associated Press has reported.
It features an unusual wave-piercing hull, electric drive propulsion, advanced sonar and guided missiles, and a gun that fires rocket-propelled warheads as far as 160 kilometres.
"The Ford-class aircraft carrier and the Zumwalt warship are the most advanced US naval ships and are equipped with [some of] the world's most powerful weapons. They show that China's shipbuilding technology lags far behind that of the US," Li said.
"Of course, it's impossible for China to catch up with US warship-building technology within a few years, but at least Beijing will spare no effort in developing defensive weapons."
The destroyer went into the water of Kennebec River off the coast of the US state of Maine before it moves dockside for the final phase of construction.
The Zumwalt can produce 78MW of electricity - enough to power 78,000 homes - which makes it a potential platform for weapons such as an electromagnetic rail gun, which uses a magnetic field and electric current to fire a projectile at seven times the speed of sound.
Li said the US would almost certainly send the Zumwalt to naval bases in Guam, to Yokosuka in Japan, or to other frontline ports in Asia.
"As a new destroyer, the [Zumwalt] DDG-1000 needs to test its fighting capability and its new advanced weapons systems on the front line close to China, one of America's potential rivals," Li said.
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong expected the US would send at least two Zumwalt destroyers to the Asia-Pacific region.
"I think one will be deployed with the Sixth Fleet that is based in Naples, Italy, and the other two with the Seventh Fleet at Yokosuka," he said.
"The DDG-1000 will push China to develop its own electromagnetic rail gun system, which has been under development for decades, within 15 years."
Li said the Zumwalt's rail gun system would at the least prompt China to develop a suitable defensive measure.
"It's the most challenging weapon for the PLA, because once the [US military] gets such a powerful spear … China at least should have a shield to defend itself," Li said.
The new aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, makes use of multiple new technologies, including an electromagnetic launching system for its planes in place of current steam catapults, and Raytheon's Evolved SeaSparrow missile (ESSM) to defend against highly manoeuvrable anti-ship missiles and other advanced weapons.
Shanghai-based naval expert Ni Lexiong said that since most of the US carrier's weapons systems would be new, the Pentagon was unlikely to immediately send the ship to the Asia-Pacific region.
"The new carrier will eventually be sent to Asia-Pacific as 60 per cent of US carriers are stationed there, but not immediately," he said.
"It is not a smart decision to show off a new weapon right away to your rivals, because you need to test it many times until you can make sure it will not go wrong."
Li said the electromagnetic launch system would prompt Beijing to speed up the development of its own catapult devices for its home-made carriers.
"China's future carriers will lose the ski-jump flight deck, which is now used on the Liaoning carrier, and America's success in developing an electromagnetic system will push China to innovate," he said.
China last month completed take-off-and-landing tests on the Liaoning. The Soviet-built Liaoning is the showpiece of Beijing's effort to build a long range "blue-water" navy.