Yes, China Will Soon Have Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carriers

Robert Farley

Key point: China has long-desired a first-class navy, and that means carriers with the ability to remain at sea for extended periods of time.

Will the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ever take the leap into nuclear propulsion for its aircraft carriers? Credible reports confirm that the PLAN is already building at least one conventional carrier in the 80,000-ton range. Given how quickly Chinese shipbuilding has accelerated, does it make sense for the PLAN to think nuclear for its next generation of ships?

Current Carriers

China has taken huge steps forward in the past decade, acquiring and modifying an old Soviet carrier, and building a new ship to the same design. China will follow up the Type 001— essentially a half-sister to Liaoning, itself a half-sister to Admiral Kuznetsovwith the Type 002. Reportedly already under construction, the Type 002 is expected to use conventional propulsion, along with a series of technological advances such as an EMALS (Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System) catapult system.

It is unclear how many Type 002 carriers Beijing will build, although a one-off would be uncharacteristic of Chinese shipbuilding. It makes sense that the PLAN would want a pair of ships; operating the CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) Type 002 carriers will require a significantly different skill set than the first two, and it will be easier to produce that skill set with two carriers than with one. Moreover, the construction of only a single carrier could make that ship a white elephant, sitting uneasily in China’s larger strategic plan.

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