China’s new Type 003 aircraft carrier and what it means for Australia

Date: 2021-12-19 13:31:13

New images show what China’s potential grand plan is and when compared to Australia’s strength, or even America’s, it doesn’t bode well.

Expect to see these soon: Chinese social media is boasting of its rapidly growing naval strength, with comprehensive and powerful battle groups soon to begin roaming the world’s seas.

A set of graphic representations of Beijing’s next-generation aircraft carrier, only known as Type 003 at this point, is capitalising upon a rapidly looming shift in the world’s balance of power.

While highly speculative, the images succeed in pressing home one significant point: the United States is about to have a competitor at a level not seen since World War II.

The graphics detail the likely composition of a Chinese “blue water” (meaning able to roam the globe) naval battle group.

At its heart is the modern aircraft carrier, a fully combat-capable ship, unlike its predecessors Liaoning and Shandong. Its air group, while unsourced, does drive home Beijing’s emphasis on stealth and autonomous drones. And the fleet formation includes a potent mix of anti-aircraft cruisers, anti-submarine frigates and troop-carrying assault ships.

It’s a sight the world usually associates only with the United States.

But Beijing will soon be projecting this highly visible expression of power throughout Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

“Those countries casting a wary eye towards China’s future carrier battle groups are quietly determining how co-ordinated actions can best compromise these aggressive future flagships,” says naval analyst Craig Hooper.

Beijing’s arms-race sprint

The Pacific Ocean is getting crowded.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army navy (PLAN) has 370 warships, exceeding the United States Navy’s 296 vessels.

The numbers, however, conceal a fundamental imbalance. Currently, the US has far more active larger ships – specifically carriers, cruisers, and destroyers.

But that advantage is rapidly diminishing.

By 2030, the PLAN is expected to have about 460 ships. And most of the new ones will be large and highly capable.

Meanwhile, US construction plans will barely replace those retiring from its rapidly ageing fleet.

“Look at what the Chinese have said. President Xi has tasked his forces to be at a level of military parity with the United States by 2027. Those are his words,” US Admiral John Aquilino told the recent Halifax International Security Forum.

He emphasised the need for allies to work with the United States in patrolling international waters and building new, interoperable capabilities.

“We need to deliver capabilities sooner and faster,” he said

Australia won’t be among those allies.

The recent cancellation of a controversial French submarine construction project has pushed back the delivery of a replacement for Australia’s ageing Collins-class fleet into the 2040s.

A new generation of general-purpose frigates also faces delays. Australian modifications to the British design threaten to make it dangerously overweight even though it has less available firepower than its UK and Canadian counterparts.

The long arm of carrier influence

China’s Type 003 aircraft carrier represents a giant leap forward in capability.

In essence, it has skipped two whole generations of naval development.

The Soviet-era ski-jump equipping the PLAN Liaoning and Shandong carriers is the most basic aircraft-launch assistance technology. But the electromagnetic catapults fitted to Type 003 skips the hydraulic and steam systems developed by the West since the 1920s.

Only the United States’ USS Gerald R. Ford – much delayed and still undergoing extensive “fixing” – has a similar advanced system fitted.

Such catapults will allow China to operate more and larger aircraft quicker.

“The Type 003 will field a modern-looking air wing,” says Hooper.

“China’s first-generation logistics, refuelling, and early-warning aircraft may still need a lot of refinement, but they will, to untrained observers, look the part.”

Leading the pack aboard Type 003 is likely to be a new navalised version of the Shenyang FC-31 stealth fighter. The prototype of this aircraft was first revealed in October.

These will be supported by radar carrying early-warning aircraft and helicopters. But, most significantly, the air group is expected to be primarily built around various autonomous drones.

Like the US, Beijing plans to operate fuel-carrying robot aircraft able to extend the combat radius of its strike aircraft. But all eyes will be on the size, shape and number of combat-capable drones among them.

“China will do all it can to highlight their similarities in size, launch technologies, and air wing composition,” argues Hooper.

“And when the Type 003 starts steaming around the Indo-Pacific, US allies may well draw further comparisons between the once-familiar sight of US flat-tops to the increasingly visible silhouette of Chinese flagships today.”

Deterrence in the balance

“China has 17 shipyards: Last year they built 20 warships [and] this year they’re building another 20 ships,” Secretary of the navy Carlos Del Toro told the 2021 Aspen Security Forum.

“I’m concerned we need to build more ships … We need to increase resources by 3 per cent to 5 per cent over inflation. We’re raising the alarm.”

Washington, however, appears afflicted by the same equipment procurement problems as Canberra.

Its Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) was supposed to be a cheap, flexible vessel capable of fighting close to hostile coasts. But costs soared even as capabilities plummeted. Its interchangeable, modular weapons systems failed to materialise. And its machinery is prone to breakdowns. Which is why the US navy has started retiring them after little more than 10 years of active service.

The Zumwalt-class stealth cruiser was supposed to herald a new generation of naval design. But only three of the original 32 ships were built. Their revolutionary hypersonic railgun was cancelled. And that’s left the ships as largely toothless tigers – at $US7 billion each.

Meanwhile, the ageing US fleet is being hard-pressed to maintain its commitments.

Maintenance is being delayed. Dockyard modernisation and upgrade procedures are being postponed.

And that’s leaving its warships looking rusty and worn.

But the competition they’re expected to stand against continues to grow.

A November Pentagon report warns Beijing is on the brink of deploying new long-range strike capabilities.

“In the near-term, the PLAN will have the capability to conduct long-range precision strikes against land targets from its submarine and surface combatants using land-attack cruise missiles, notably enhancing the PRC’s global power project,” it reads.

“The addition of land-attack capabilities to the PLAN’s surface combatants and submarines would provide the PLA with flexible long-range strike options. This would allow the PRC to hold land targets at risk beyond the Indo-Pacific region from the maritime domain.”

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