A new report revealed, citing sources close to the country’s military claims China’s next aircraft carrier is likely to be nuclear powered.
The South China Morning Post quoted a person close to the Chinese navy as saying that shipbuilders “are keen on making a significant breakthrough” with the construction of the fourth carrier.
“Shipbuilders and ship propulsion engineers are keen on making a significant breakthrough with the construction of the fourth carrier,” a source close to the Chinese navy said on condition of anonymity.
“It will be a technological leap for the shipbuilding industry … but construction may take longer than for its sister ship due to the different propulsion systems.”
A second source, who also asked not to be identified, said the Central Military Commission was studying a proposal by China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) to use nuclear power for the fourth carrier.
He declined to say whether a decision had been made, but said it would be a “very bold decision that is full of challenges”.
The CSSC said in February 2018 it had started developing a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which would help the PLA Navy to “realise its strategic transformation and combat-readiness capability in deep waters and open oceans by 2025”.
In 2019, China General Nuclear Power Group invited bids for a contract to build a 30,000-tonne nuclear-powered ship, which it described as an “experimental platform”.
The first source said the “experimental platform” was intended as a way to test the nuclear reactors that would later be installed on aircraft carriers.
Notices released by the PLA last year showed it had bought a series of reports on how to build a nuclear propulsion system.
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said a nuclear power system would not only enable the aircraft carriers’ electromagnetic catapult systems to operate more smoothly but also support high-energy weapons like laser and rail guns.
“Also, the control tower island on a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is much smaller than a conventionally powered platform so it frees up more space for aircraft,” he said.
China already has two operational aircraft carriers and a third – to which the source was referring – is expected to be launched this year. None are nuclear-powered.
It was only in 2017 when China launched its first domestically made aircraft carrier, in a demonstration of the growing technical sophistication of its defence industries.
The 50,000-tonne carrier, known as Shandong, is based on the Soviet Kuznetsov-class design, with a ski jump-style deck for taking off and a conventional oil-fuelled steam turbine power plant.
The other vessel in operation is the 60,000-tonne Liaoning aircraft carrier, which was bought from Ukraine.
The third one, expected to be in operation this year, has an estimated displacement of about 85,000 tonnes, according to the Post report.
It was reported in 2017 that China was already building a vessel at a shipyard outside Shanghai that is expected to be closer in size to the US Navy’s nuclear-powered 100,000-tonne Nimitz-class ships, with flat flight decks and catapults to allow planes to launch with more bombs and fuel on board.
Aside from the two aircraft carriers in operation, China already has in its arsenal more than a dozen nuclear-powered submarines.