You will surprise to know How thick is the aircraft carrier deck?

A fourth aircraft carrier is high on China’s military wish list. This next Chinese aircraft carrier could be nuclear-powered. 

A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), following in the footsteps of the United States and France.

For the PLAN, this means having the military capability to guarantee a steady oil supply from the Middle East and the ability to defend its territorial claims and shipping lanes.

With a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the PLAN could keep continual watch over Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan while posing a threat to Australia and India.

Can the fourth aircraft carrier be nuclear-powered?

China appears to be rushing to commission nuclear reactors on aircraft carriers by 2027.  The China State Shipbuilding Corporation has stated that it would have to make a substantial technological leap before creating a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

However, the Chinese are confident in their shipbuilding capabilities. They already have the largest Navy in the world, so surface nuclear power should be at their helm.

CONVENTIONALLY POWERED AIRCRAFT CARRIERS WOULD CONTINUE TO CAUSE TENSIONS BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND ITS ALLIES

Even if the new aircraft carrier is diesel-powered, it is one more headache for the United States and its allies to worry about.

The US Navy’s ability to maintain two carrier battle groups at sea in the Indo-Pacific is crucial to the efficacy of the flotillas’ participation in the conflict.

THEY HAVE ALREADY DELIVERED THE THIRD AIRCRAFT CARRIER

The third Chinese aircraft carrier, the Fujian, is the largest and most advanced in the fleet. She was launched in June. Thus, the PLAN sails with the wind in favor of favorable conditions. 

The Chinese are believed to have completed design work on the fourth aircraft carrier and may start building it between 2025 and 2027. 

A conventionally powered ship would take less time to build and have a lower level of maintenance, as the Chinese are inexperienced with nuclear reactors on surface ships.

SOME ANALYSTS ARE CONVINCED CHINA WILL TEST A NUCLEAR-POWERED AIRCRAFT CARRIER

Malcolm Davis, a senior fellow at the Canberra-based Australian Institute for Strategic Policy, believes China will choose the nuclear propulsion option.

A conventionally powered ship requires extensive forward bases and maintenance facilities. He told the South China Morning Post that whereas conventional warships need a network of bases to operate, a nuclear-powered vessel does not.

 Furthermore, the Chinese always strive for the highest prestige and media value when looking for future weapons systems.

Davis said that by aiming for a nuclear aircraft carrier, China could become an even bigger global superpower.

A BETTER CATAPULT ALLOWS TO LAUNCH OF BETTER PLANES

The PLAN also wants an electromagnetic catapult installed on the deck of the fourth ship to allow for the launch of larger, more powerful aircraft.

Nuclear energy makes this more feasible. In addition, the PLAN has experience with nuclear-powered submarines, so it should be possible for its shipyards to adapt this technology to power an aircraft carrier.

THE FOURTH CARRIER WILL CREATE A FORMIDABLE STRIKE GROUP

China anticipates that its sophisticated Type 055 cruisers in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would soon be able to deploy hypersonic anti-ship missiles, allowing them to form a combat group with the fourth aircraft carrier.

This strike force would include state-of-the-art submarines and naval drones.

THE FOURTH AIRCRAFT CARRIER IS APPROACHING

You can bet that China will have a fourth aircraft carrier by the early 2030s. That means it could keep one under maintenance and three at sea at any time.

Even if a second carrier were disabled or needed refit, the PLAN would have another two patrolling in strategic waters. A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier could also maintain a long-term presence in the Taiwan Strait, and if the Chinese decided to blockade Taiwan, it could remain at sea indefinitely.

How has the PLAN been able to move forward? It has retrofitted or indigenously built three aircraft carriers in the last two decades. 

This is a testament to the strength of the Chinese industrial base. While the United States struggles over which ships to build and which to retire, China keeps working and putting more ships into service.

This fourth aircraft carrier, nuclear-powered or not, is another cautionary tale for the Americans and their allies to consider when creating a strategic and tactical response to the Chinese in the Indo-Pacific.