The Chinese navy is moving ahead with plans to build another aircraft carrier, but plans for a fifth have been put on hold for now, according to military insiders.
They said that technical challenges and high costs had put the brakes on the programme and the recent merger of the country’s two major shipbuilders was unlikely to have a significant short-term impact.
The country currently has just one active carrier, the Liaoning – a refitted Soviet-era vessel – but the first homebuilt carrier, the Type 001, is undergoing sea trials and may soon be ready for service.
Work on the more modern Type 002 carrier started two years ago and a naval source said construction on the second Type 002 could start as early as 2021.
But plans for a next-generation carrier appear to be on hold for now as engineers struggle to overcome technical problems. “There is no plan to build more aircraft carriers,” said one military source.
“The third and fourth Chinese aircraft carriers on the agenda are both Type 002s, the country’s next generation warship equipped with electromagnetic catapults [for launching jets].”
These carriers will all be conventionally powered, but naval chiefs have been considering plans to build a more technologically advanced, nuclear-powered vessel, according to another source.
On Tuesday a ceremony in Beijing was held to mark the formation of the world’s largest shipbuilding company with the merger of the China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) and China Shipbuilding Industry Company (CSIC).
The new conglomerate – which retains the name CSIC name – has a total of 147 research institutes, business enterprises and listed companies with a combined asset value of 790 billion yuan (US$112 billion). It also employs 310,000 people, according to the official news agency Xinhua.
But military insiders said that while the merger will strengthen the CSIC’s competitiveness, it will not speed up the carrier-building process.
“[The engineers] have found some technical problems, and one of the key obstacles is in the development of a new generation of carrier-based fighter jets,” said one of the sources. “These problems are not expected to be resolved in the near term.”
“China doesn’t possess the nuclear technology required, although it has developed many nuclear-powered submarines,” said the source, who added that developing a reactor for use on a large warship is more challenging than making one for a submarine.
The insider also said that tests of the electromagnetic catapults used to launch the J-15, China’s only carrier-based fighter, had yet to meet the required standard.
“Aircraft carrier-building is the world’s most complicated and costly project employing many sophisticated technologies,” the source said.
“It is a new area for Chinese shipbuilders and engineers and really needs time to catch up with other countries.”