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China unveils railgun-armed nuclear-powered supercarrier

China has unveiled a super-ship concept, a railgun-armed nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, reviving an old Soviet concept in line with its bastion strategy in the South China Sea. However, it may be more of a prestige weapon than a viable warship design.

This month, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that China’s top naval scientist, Ma Weiming, has proposed a futuristic warship that could transform naval fleets into Star Wars-style super-ships. Ma proposed his design in the peer-reviewed journal Transactions of China Electrotechnical Society.

The SCMP notes that the super-ship could carry many aircraft but differs from traditional carriers, as it is heavily armed with electromagnetic weapons such as railguns, coilguns, rocket launchers, laser weapons, and high-powered microwaves.

The source notes that the ship’s advanced technology effectively transforms energy from the ship’s power source into the electromagnetic energy needed to power high-powered weapons, allowing a single warship to defend against air attacks accurately, engage in anti-submarine warfare, intercept missiles, and deliver precise strikes on both naval and land targets.

The source says the super-ship’s comprehensive nuclear-powered electromagnetic system could convert nuclear energy into usable kinetic energy or electricity to drive high-energy weapons systems, such as on-board railguns that could hit targets in near space with guided ordnance at up to seven times the speed of sound.

It also says the electromagnetic-launched projectiles could be automatically reloaded like an automatic rifle, allowing far greater speed and number of projectiles fired than adversaries.

Soviet precedent

China’s super-ship may be a modern take on the Soviet-era aviation cruiser concept. The aviation cruiser combines the features of an aircraft carrier and a cruiser. Unlike traditional aircraft carriers relying exclusively on their on-board air wings for offensive power, the aviation cruiser can also take on surface, air, and underwater threats with advanced weaponry.

Such ships include the Kiev-class and Admiral Kuznetsov carriers. Unlike US carriers, designed primarily as floating airbases for global power projection, aviation cruisers support and defend nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), surface ships, and missile-carrying bombers within protected sea bastions.

However, designing ships that combine vastly different capabilities, with one half of the ship being of one type and the other half being of another, often leads to failures. This flaw was evident in the case of Soviet-era aviation cruisers, which had inflexible weapons, small flight decks, too few and short-ranged onboard aircraft, and poor seakeeping abilities.

They were more expensive than similarly sized aircraft carriers or surface combatants, yet they performed worse than either type. Additionally, the large number of US nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) made hunting them down impractical for so few such ships.

Despite that, technological advancements may have made the aviation cruiser concept viable again, tying in with China’s bastion strategy in the South China Sea. In that strategy, land-based aircraft, missiles, naval forces, and fortified islands will protect the area.

The South China Sea’s semi-enclosed configuration and proximity to China’s shores make it an ideal location for the strategy. Hainan’s large submarine base indicates China is moving in this direction with its SSBN fleet.

Technological advances that could make the aviation cruiser concept viable in China’s bastion strategy include railgun development, nuclear propulsion, and evolving submarine detection technologies.

For instance, Asia Times reported in April 2022 that Chinese researchers are currently working to address the issues of railgun development. They are intensifying weapon trials and experimenting with innovative solutions, such as applying liquid metal on rails to reduce firing wear and using special coatings to minimize damage from repeated firings.

Their railgun designs have unique features that differ from those in US models. For instance, their models do not require an extra muzzle device to reduce electric flashes.

US experience

In contrast, the US stopped research on railgun technology in 2021, citing fiscal constraints, combat system integration challenges, and the technology maturation of hypersonic weapons. Also, the US railgun project has been marred with challenges in barrel design, lifespan, and materials that could withstand the power pulse, heat, and pressure in launching projectiles.

Moreover, China’s electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) technology may help resolve the problems associated with Soviet-era aviation cruisers’ complement of aircraft.

Asia Times noted in May 2022 that China’s third aircraft carrier, the Fujian, is equipped with an EMALS system that does not require nuclear power. Operating this system is less complicated and imposes less stress on the airframes. Additionally, it can launch heavier aircraft and increase the number of aircraft in the air more efficiently within a shorter timeframe.

On the other hand, China’s two older carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, use a ski-ramp design, which limits the amount of fuel and armament the embarked aircraft can carry.

In addition, China’s fourth aircraft carrier may most likely be a nuclear-powered design, providing the power necessary for operating energy-intensive technologies such as railguns and EMALS.

Asia Times reported in October 2022 that China is reportedly planning to develop a nuclear-powered carrier called “Type 003” by 2025. According to China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC), it aims to achieve a breakthrough in nuclear-powered technology by 2027, which could be used to develop the carrier. CSSC has previously leaked a mock-up of the proposed carrier.

Also, improvements in submarine detection technology may enable China’s super=ship to perform anti-submarine missions effectively.

Asia Times has previously reported on these advancements, such as extremely low frequency (ELF) and terahertz signals detection, which, coupled with the increasing transparency of the world’s oceans due to the proliferation of commercial technologies such as satellite imagery, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), and social media disseminated tracking can make US SSBNs and SSNs more vulnerable than before, with considerable implications to nuclear deterrence and US extended deterrence guarantees to its allies.

However, China’s super-ship may be a prestige project rather than a viable warfighting platform, as the concept concentrates so much capability into one or a few potentially vulnerable ships over smaller, numerous, and dispersed assets.

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