China's aircraft carriers
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
China’s recently launched third aircraft carrier, the Fujian, has a conventional diesel-powered propulsion system. Photo: Weibo

China’s aircraft carrier No 4 will not catch up with US Navy’s nuclear-powered giants, analysts say

  • China’s naval nuclear reactor technology is not advanced enough to support an aircraft carrier, according to observers
  • All of the US Navy’s 11 active aircraft carriers are nuclear-powered
China’s next and fourth aircraft carrier is likely to be a conventional diesel-powered vessel similar to the newly launched Fujian, analysts believe.
This means the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) warships would still lag behind their 11 active US Navy counterparts, all of which are nuclear-powered.

The conventional choice is likely because China’s naval nuclear reactor technology is not advanced enough to support an aircraft carrier, the analysts explained.

Chinese military buffs had expected the country’s fourth aircraft carrier to be a nuclear-powered platform on a par with the American navy’s newest USS Gerald R. Ford supercarrier.

Their hopes rested on the fact that the Fujian, China’s third aircraft carrier, while still diesel-powered, was equipped with the world’s most advanced electromagnetic catapult systems on a par with the USS Ford-class vessels.


US Navy sets off explosives to test new aircraft carrier

US Navy sets off explosives to test new aircraft carrier

The Fujian, launched on June 17, has a conventional propulsion system not suited to prolonged operation in the high seas, because of the regular refuelling and maintenance involved. By comparison, the diesel-powered USS Kitty Hawk – the last such vessel to serve in the US Navy before being decommissioned in 2009 – could remain in the open seas for more than a month.

While China had completed design work for its fourth aircraft carrier, the Type 004, it was very likely to still be a diesel-powered one, a source close to the PLA told the South China Morning Post.

“The final decision about whether the Type 004 will be a nuclear-powered or diesel-propelled ship has yet to be made, but the navy leadership is in favour of conventional power,” the source said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

The fourth Chinese aircraft carrier will be launched between 2025 and 2027, the source said.

“Construction work on the new ship will be handed over to the Jiangnan shipyard [in Shanghai]. Special steel for the ship is ready, but construction work will not start until results of the Fujian’s sea trials come out.”
The Fujian – named after the southeastern coastal province – was built at the same shipyard.


What is known about the Fujian, China’s first home-designed aircraft carrier

What is known about the Fujian, China’s first home-designed aircraft carrier

Military experts say emerging evidence and the latest ground realities suggest it will be impossible for the PLA Navy to catch up with their US rivals just yet.

“China still has a long way to go to develop a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, because the most urgent need for its navy is to carefully test the Fujian,” said Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank in Beijing.

China plans to launch at least four aircraft carrier strike groups by 2030. However, only the first – the Liaoning, a refurbished Soviet warship commissioned in 2012 – has achieved initial operational capability, or basic combat readiness.


Social-media clip shows pilots training aboard Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning

Social-media clip shows pilots training aboard Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning

With a displacement of over 80,000 tonnes, the Fujian is powered by four steam turbo generators – the kind that also supports China’s most powerful destroyer, the Type 055 – as well as eight diesel engines, early reports on Chinese social media indicate. But nuclear power is a different ball game.

“The power supply on the Fujian is powerful enough to support the electromagnetic catapult systems under the new integrated electrical propulsion system developed by Rear Admiral Ma Weiming,” Zhou said.

“The electromagnetic catapult system is still a new technology for both the PLA and the US navies … but the naval nuclear reactor technology for a giant surface platform is a totally new thing for China.”

China has developed a naval nuclear reactor for both its attack submarines and ballistic missile submarines. The biggest active sub, the Type 094, has a displacement of 11,000 tonnes, just about 15 per cent of the Fujian.

The most important advantage of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is its ability to sustain high speeds and long-range military power projection at sea for up to eight months, with the giant ship able to store enough food and water for on-board crew, normally about 5,000 strong.

Chinese warships appear to be sailing around Japan amid tensions

“Unlike the US Navy’s global strategy, the Chinese navy just navigates in the waters of the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific region,” Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie noted.

“Diesel-powered aircraft carriers are powerful enough for the PLA Navy to perform tasks such as safeguarding China’s territorial sovereignty, escorting Chinese commercial vessels shipping resources from the Middle East, and so on.”

Zhou noted that the Fujian was still just moored at the Jiangnan shipyard, when it was supposed to sail out to sea for several days of trials to test propulsion systems and communication equipment following its launch.

This indicated some problems still needed to be tackled, he said.

“Accidents or problems are inevitable, because it is the first new generation aircraft carrier for China,” Zhou said. “All the problems faced by the USS Gerald R. Ford will also be faced by the Fujian.

“For safety reasons and from the perspective of scientific research, it’s not worth taking too much of a risk to pursue a nuclear-powered giant warship in a rush,” he cautioned.

Li said the reality is that there is still a big gap between Chinese and US naval nuclear reactor technologies.

China puts 2 more Type 055 destroyers into service in blue-water navy push

The abundance of China’s most advanced multipurpose nuclear reactor, the ACP100 small modular reactor (SMR), also known as the Linglong One, is only 3 per cent, compared with 60 per cent for the US Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, and 97 per cent on the Ford-class ones.

In other words, the Chinese nuclear reactor would need to refuel once every two or three years, whereas the one on a Ford-class ship can operate for up to half a century.

As for the Nimitz-class carriers, a major operation called nuclear reactor refuelling and complex overhaul (RCOH) must be carried out every two decades or so. A 2002 Rand report showed the US Navy had spent nearly US$2.2 billion the previous year for the RCOH of the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) – the lead ship of the class.