The rise of China’s naval ambitions has truly been one of the biggest defense stories of this decade. And yet, China still does not have a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. While that may be the case right now, that could change in the years to come. What if China builds a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier allowing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) access to the world’s oceans? This would allow PLAN to join the United States and France as the only countries with nuclear carriers. This development would bring the Chinese one step closer to dominating their region through carrier-based air power.
China is the world leader in shipbuilding, and given enough time, it could probably create an advanced carrier capable of navigating the seas for long-term endurance. But when could it happen and what does it mean for the entire US Navy?
Type 004 aircraft carrier does not grant China a short-term wish
Most reports these days point to the construction of a 4th aircraft carrier which is indeed nuclear powered – known as Type 004. But it’s important not to be too alarmist about the program . The Chinese would take several years to build the nuclear-powered vessel – if these reports are correct. It is not expected to be completed until 2030, with launch expected after sea trials in 2035.
More planes with better technology and weapons
Despite the long delay since launch, it would be larger than other Chinese carriers and would likely carry a larger and more numerous air wing, including stealth fighters, airborne command and early warning aircraft, as well as anti-submarine devices. The ships could even have electromagnetic catapults, lasers and railguns.
Could there be a nuclear-powered battle group?
The Chinese have the means to build a carrier battle group around the Type 004 composed of destroyers and guided missile cruisers, as well as submarines. Although can these escort ships follow a long journey with the aircraft carrier to other regions outside of East Asia? It would depend on the development of a nuclear power plant that could be placed on other ships. It is not known whether the Chinese are designing a nuclear reactor for other surface ships.
Part of a long-planned maritime strategy
The Chinese have long had their “string of pearls” strategy of building a corridor of naval facilities on the way to the Middle East that would allow PLAN ships to refuel and resupply for long voyages. Port of Gwadar in Pakistan and Port of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar are part of this concept, which would allow China to encircle India and challenge it for dominance in the region. A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier would cement China’s execution of this strategy.
Thorn alongside the US Navy
A fourth carrier would also give the PLAN another means of denying access to the US Navy as the Americans maintain freedom of navigation in the South and East China Sea, in addition to their missile platforms based at earth. The Chinese would have probably improved their militarization of various islands, rocks and reefs even further. Their fleet of aircraft carriers would protect these claims.
Both sides would use ranged missile attacks
US military bases in Japan and Guam, as well as garrisons in Okinawa and South Korea would face a Chinese nuclear aircraft carrier. What would carrier warfare look like if the Chinese ever completed the Type 004? We really only have the experience of World War II to compare, however, the sinking of the Moskva shows how fragile modern warships are under certain circumstances in the age of cheap anti-ship weapons. Still, this would likely include the use of remote carrier kill missiles used by Chinese anti-ship and hypersonic cruise missiles used by either side that would be launched from aircraft and submarines.
Protect commercial interests
China will also use its carriers to protect its supply chain. “The Indian Ocean sees almost 60% of trade, including trade in oil from Middle East oilfields. And 80% of China’s oil imports pass through the Strait of Malacca,” according to India Times’ Maninder Dabas.
It’s not just for military purposes
China must also keep shipping lines open for oil and natural gas imports from the Middle East. A nuclear carrier will offer them better protection for the transit of these natural resources. The nuclear carrier could achieve diplomatic goals and allow Beijing to participate in humanitarian efforts in other regions due to natural disasters.
So a nuclear carrier is exactly what the doctor ordered for China. This gives them global prestige, an ability to dominate one’s region, a way to project power outside of one’s neighborhood, and the means to protect their imports and exports in international trade.
The Type 004, under China’s long game practice, could be a dream come true for China’s strategic culture.
Now as 1945 Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. EastwoodPhD, is the author of Humans, Machines and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an emerging threat expert and former US Army infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.