Saturday, May 18, 2024

China Builds World’s First Dedicated Drone Carrier – Naval News

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Hidden away in a shipyard on the Yangtze, far upriver from the major yards at Shanghai, is a new aircraft carrier. It’s China’s fourth, a ship whose mere existence has not been reported before. Only China can build an aircraft carrier in relative secrecy.

This ship, launched in December 2022 but not reported until now, is surrounded by mystery. Naval News, together with J. Michael Dahm, Senior Resident Fellow at the Mitchell Institute, have been analyzing it.

Mysterious Drone Carrier

The world knows about China’s first three carriers; the largest and most capable, the Type-003 Fujian, is currently undergoing sea trials. This new carrier is very different. Its claim to fame will not be that it is larger. Instead, we are confident that this ship is the world’s first dedicated fixed-wing drone carrier.

The design is smaller than the regular aircraft carriers, with a flight deck approximately one third the length and half the width of a U.S. Navy or Chinese Navy (PLAN) super carrier. For comparison, it is slightly shorter but wider than a World War Two escort carriers. It would be possible to operate fixed wing aircraft from it, but its straight deck arrangement would be anachronistic, not allowing aircraft to take off and land at the same time. Additionally there doesn’t appear to be space for a typical aircraft hanger, so the number of aircraft would be greatly limited. It does make sense as a drone carrier however.

Drones are an increasing part of naval warfare. Leading navies are already trialing them from regular aircraft carriers. And some navies, notably Iran and Turkey, are working on plans for ‘drone carriers’. But this space is still in its infancy.

Analysis of the ship

It is immediately apparent that it is, in general arrangement, an aircraft carrier of some sort. It has a marked runaway running along the port (left side) with an island superstructure on the starboard (right) side. 

Beyond this, it is unusual in every respect. The hull is a widely spaced catamaran. While catamarans are often featured in aircraft carrier concepts because they allow a large deck area, no one has actually built one before. Additionally, analysis of satellite imagery shows that the flight deck is very low. It appears unlikely there is a hangar deck below the flight deck. If there is, its ceiling is very low. Therefore, it does not appear designed to support high tempo or prolonged flight operations. 

The flight deck is wide enough to comfortably operate aircraft or drones with a wingspan of around 20 meters (65 feet) such as Chinese equivalents of the Predator drone. 

However, the mere existence of a flight deck suggests that aircraft intend to land on it. A catapult or launch rail of some form would be sufficient for launch if recovery wasn’t necessary.

Potential roles for this ship

J. Michael Dahm notes that the shipyard where it is being built, Jiangsu Dayang Marine, has previously built simulated enemy ships for the PLAN. China has an extensive program of simulating Western and Western-leaning navies’ ships in its weapon testing program. Its anti-ship ballistic missiles are tested on full-size outlines of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers.

Several high-tech target barges and two large drone motherships have already been built at this shipyard. All these perform as opposing forces in training, a role known as ‘Electronic Blue Force’. So it is possible that this ship too is designed to support that mission.

If the new ship is intended to support large fixed-wing UAVs at sea, as its design suggests, then it raises the question of who or what it is expected to simulate. As we note, it is the first drone carrier in the world, so it is not mimicking any known Western ship. Such drones could be operated more cheaply from shore. A second possibility is that it is some type of experimental platform that will test and develop drone operations at sea.

Whether it is intended for Blue Force simulation or purely research and development remains to be seen. Similarly, we question whether it is an official PLAN program or a speculative commercial project. The new drone carrier remains something of a mystery. Watch this space.

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