Sunday, July 21, 2024

China navy secretly built what could be world’s first drone aircraft carrier: report

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China’s navy has secretly built what could be the world’s first dedicated drone carrier ship, according to Naval News, a squat ship that looks like a mini-aircraft carrier.

The outlet used satellite imagery dated May 6, along with input from J. Michael Dahm, a senior resident fellow for aerospace and China studies at the Mitchell Institute.

“We are confident that this ship is the world’s first dedicated fixed-wing drone carrier,” it said. Other experts, however, cautioned that only time would tell its purpose.

The report cited the vessel’s flight deck length, which it said is about one-third the length and half the width of a Chinese or US Navy aircraft carrier. It’s also roughly half the length of China’s amphibious assault ships that launch manned helicopters, suggesting that the new ship’s flight deck is designed for fewer helicopters or smaller aircraft like drones.

Warships’ flight decks have been bases for drones like the US’s MQ-8B Fire Scout helicopter and the lightweight Scan Eagle drone. What appears new is that the Chinese ship’s entire function may be to launch and land drones, although its purpose will only be confirmed by future observations of its testing and operations.

The report estimated that the flight deck was wide enough to allow aircraft or drones with a wingspan of roughly 65 feet, like the Chinese equivalents of the Reaper drone, to operate from it.

Citing satellite imagery, the report also said that the flight deck appears to be “very” low, suggesting there’s no hangar below for aircraft storage and maintenance like those of assault ships and carriers. As seen, the ship appears to be well under the length of a Chinese frigate.

Alessio Patalano, a professor of war and strategy in East Asia at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, backed up the assessment.

He told BI that the platform’s flattop and compact deck, together with the reportedly catamaran-like hull, suggest that it will be used for drones; the US has also experimented with launching drones from catamaran-style ferries, but the ship’s flight deck is much smaller.

Patalano also said it would make sense for the Chinese navy to keep its trials largely hidden from international scrutiny.

But Lyle Goldstein, Director of Asia Engagement at the DC-based think tank Defense Priorities, said he would hesitate to call it a drone carrier based on just one satellite image.

Strategically, however, he said it would make a lot of sense.

Drones have a relatively small range, limiting their deployment away from the coastline, Goldstein told BI, so having a carrier would give the Chinese navy a “robust” network and allow drones of different types to attack.

“I spend a lot of time looking at Taiwan scenarios, and I think China would be looking to really deploy huge amounts of these exploding drones as its main weapon,” he said.

The possible drone mothership was spotted only weeks after China’s third carrier started sea trials.

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