A story published Thursday on the English website of the Chinese People's Liberation Army said the country's top shipbuilding company is working on an aircraft carrier with an electromagnetic catapult aircraft launch system, something featured exclusively aboard the US Navy's most expensive carrier ever, the USS Gerald R. Ford.
Aircraft launched by electromagnetic catapults can get airborne quicker and with greater quantities of fuel and ammunition, giving them an advantage over planes launched by ski-jump, which rely on their own power when lifting off.
For decades, US carriers have used steam catapult systems, where steam explodes into a piston attached to the plane's landing gear, powering it off the deck. Besides the Ford, the other 10 carriers in the US fleet use steam catapults.
The US Navy touts the electromagnetic system as capable of launching a wider range of aircraft at a better pace and requiring less maintenance. It's also planned for the next ships in the Ford class, the USS John F Kennedy and USS Enterprise.
China has been undergoing an extensive naval modernization and expansion program, and a carrier to equal the US ships has long been thought to be an ambition of Beijing.
The story gave new support to that. Written by the state-owned Global Times and posted on the PLA's website, the story centers around a photo that is "believed to be the country's first aircraft carrier equipped with an electromagnetic aircraft launch system."
The photo in question was released by the No.701 Research Institute of China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation and shows China's two current ski-jump carriers flanking a larger ship with a flat deck.
That flat deck "makes an electromagnetic aircraft launch system possible," the story says, citing military expert Song Zhongping.
"Three catapults on board show that the new ship will be able to launch aircraft faster and more frequently than the previous carriers, and therefore will possess stronger combat capabilities," the Global Times story goes on to say.
The story included speculation that the new carrier is already under construction in Shanghai.
The new flat-top carrier would be China's second domestically built carrier and its third carrier in total, following the acquisition and refit of a former Ukrainian vessel.
Last month, its first homegrown carrier, a 50,000-ton ship temporarily named Type 001A, began its first sea trials. The PLA's website reported Wednesday that those trials were successfully completed this week. The Type 001A is expected to officially join the PLA Navy's fleet sometime before 2020.
But experts said while the Type 001A will dramatically boost China's military power in the Asia region, its technology was still outdated and lagged far behind the American fleet.
"This is, in and of itself, not designed to be some frontal challenge to US power in the Asia Pacific, because it simply isn't in the class of America's aircraft carriers," Sam Roggeveen, senior fellow at Sydney's Lowy Institute, told CNN in May.
China's first carrier, the Liaoning, a retrofitted Soviet-era vessel bought from the Ukraine, was hailed as the fulfillment of a "70-year dream" of the Chinese nation when it launched to much celebration in 2012.
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