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China’s Ambitious Naval Expansion: Next-Generation Nuclear Carrier on the Horizon, Building Upon the Type 003

China appears to be preparing to build a fourth aircraft carrier and new type of frigate more suited for high seas operations to complement its future carrier battlegroups.

Recent satellite photos revealed two FC-31s Gyrfalcon stealth fighters parked alongside several J-15 Flying Shark carrier-borne fighters at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) flight facility in Liaoning province, hinting that the FC-31 may be positioned aboard China’s two carriers, the Liaoning and Shandong.

The joint appearance of the two types of warplanes may also hint at initial operational preparations for constructing a fourth aircraft carrier capable of operating both types of fighters. At present, the Liaoning is equipped with 26 J-15s, and the Shandong with 32 J-15 units. Neither carrier currently operates the FC-31.

The 5th generation stealth fighter was developed as a private venture by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) and first flew in 2012. The FC-31 was also marketed for export but without any commercial success.

In 2019, the FC-31 was rejected by the PLA Air Force in favor of the J-20 as its premier 5th generation fighter. However, SAC hinted in early 2021 that it will accelerate the further development of the FC-31, with the jet’s chief designer Sun Cong stating in a press conference that the type would indeed serve in future on China’s aircraft carriers.

China’s third Type 003 carrier was supposed to be launched on April 23 but delays in deliveries of critical components and workforce quarantines hindered progress. Unlike the Liaoning and Shandong, China’s Type 003 carrier would be equipped with an electromagnetically assisted launch system (EMALS) that does not require nuclear power.

Compared to traditional steam catapults, EMALS are known to be easier to operate, gentler on airframes, can launch heavier aircraft and can put more aircraft in the air in a shorter amount of time. In contrast, the Liaoning and Shandong employ an older ski ramp design, which limits the carried fuel and armament of its embarked aircraft.

Some suggest these developments indicate that China is on track to building a fourth aircraft carrier. In February 2018, China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) said that it has started development on a nuclear-powered carrier that would help the PLA Navy “realize its strategic transformation and combat-readiness capability in deep waters and open oceans by 2025.”

Leaked details from CSSC state that China’s fourth carrier “will displace between ninety thousand and one hundred thousand tons and have EMALS catapults for getting aircraft off the deck. It’ll likely carry a large air wing of J-15 fighters, J-31 stealth fighters, KJ-600 airborne early warning and control aircraft, anti-submarine warfare helicopters, and stealth attack drones.”

China’s Type 003 carrier may thus be a transition design from the ski ramp decks of the Liaoning and Shandong to a conventionally-powered EMALS system in the Type 003, before moving on to nuclear power.

This March, the Huangpu Wenchong shipyard issued an open tender for super-high-strength structural steel of the kind used in military hulls, fueling speculation that China will begin work on a new type of frigate to complement its Type 003 carrier.

China’s new frigate, dubbed as the Type 54B, is seen as the successor of the Type 54A. Compared to the Type 54A, concept art of the Type 54B shows new radars and an eight-tube HQ-10 CIWS missile launcher on top of the hangars.

Compared to the Type 54A, the Type 54B has a bow-mounted Type 730 30mm close-in weapons system (CIWS), 16 extra vertical launch systems (VLS) cells mounted amidships and hangars for two helicopters. The class would also likely feature improvements in speed, range, subsystems and endurance compared to the 054A.

China has embarked on an aggressive naval shipbuilding program to build six carrier battle groups by 2035, signaling the global expansion of its security interests, willingness to challenge longstanding US dominance in the Pacific and efforts to keep a military option against Taiwan viable. The possible construction of China’s fourth aircraft carrier and Type 054B frigate underscores these objectives.

Aircraft carriers are high-seas combat platforms suited for expeditionary operations and allow China to overcome the limits of its current Near Seas Defense and Far Seas Protection naval strategy.

The primary objective of Near Seas Defense is to prepare to fight and win in the near seas, which include the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, South China Sea and areas in and around the so-called First Island Chain, or the first chain of major archipelagos reaching out from the East Asian continental mainland coast.

Far Seas Protection, on the other hand, reflects China’s intention to defend its critical sea lanes of communication and overseas interests in the Western Pacific and beyond. The new carrier battle groups will complement China’s robust anti-access/area-denial capabilities within the First Island Chain by providing force projection capabilities into the Western Pacific for Far Seas Protection.

This month, China sent its Liaoning carrier through the Miyako Strait, a key gateway to the Western Pacific, along with four guided-missile destroyers, the state-of-the-art Type 55 cruiser and a Type 901 fast combat support ship.

Previously, the Liaoning carrier battlegroup also conducted a similar deployment last year near the same location. With such moves, China could be signaling that its naval forces will not be contained within the First Island Chain by the US and its allies.

China’s carriers would also play a huge role in a potential invasion of Taiwan. Chinese carrier battlegroups may be deployed to surround Taiwan, passing through the Miyako Strait north of the island and the Bashi Channel to the south.

These carriers would be instrumental in enforcing a blockade against Taiwan, complement China’s mainland-based combat aircraft and contribute to deterring or fighting off a US intervention.

However, such a naval encirclement would be a risky maneuver to execute considering China’s carrier battlegroups would potentially have to face Japan and the US forces in the Miyako Strait north of Taiwan, as well as US forces from Guam in the Bashi Channel.

China is clearly cognizant of the diplomatic value of its carriers. Aircraft carriers are highly visible and flexible instruments of naval and national power capable of conveying reassurance to allies and threat of force to adversaries. They are also symbols of great power status and national prestige.

While China has not yet deployed any of its two operational carriers on goodwill visits or humanitarian assistance missions, they and future units will likely be deployed for such functions in the future.

China’s new frigate can form part of its future carrier battlegroups, complementing the larger Type 55 cruisers and Type 52D destroyers as general-purpose combatants. This may hint at a high-low fleet plan, with the Type 54B being the low capability ships, while the Type 55s and Type 52Ds serve as the high capability ships.

As a general-purpose, mass-produced combatant, the Type 54B may perform escort duties for China’s amphibious landing groups, carrier battle groups, resupply and logistics vessels, and merchant fleet while striking a balance between cost, technology, numbers and range.