China is on track to have at least four aircraft carriers by the mid-2020s, with its fourth one likely to be nuclear-powered. Work on China’s fourth carrier began in 2021, with China’s Central Military Commission studying a proposal by China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) to make it nuclear fuelled.
Compared to their conventionally-powered counterparts, nuclear-powered carriers can stay at sea for much longer, carry twice the amount of aircraft fuel, 30% more weapons, and 300,000 cubic feet of additional space, which would otherwise be taken by air intakes and exhaust trunks. Nuclear power is also critical for power-intensive aircraft catapults, weapons, sensor and onboard computers.
China has also been working on key technologies for its nuclear-powered carrier. In 2019, China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) invited bids for a contract to build a nuclear-powered vessel as an experimental platform to test marine nuclear propulsion. In 2018, China announced plans to build its own nuclear-powered icebreaker with Russian technical assistance.
China is also working on Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch Systems (EMALS), which use a surge of electricity to generate a strong electromagnetic field to launch aircraft. It is reportedly easier to operate, gentler on airplanes and capable of launching more planes into the air in a shorter period than conventional steam catapults.
The impetus for China’s nuclear-powered carrier program can be traced to 2018, when CSSC announced that such an asset would help the People’s Liberation Army–Navy (PLA-N) realize its strategic transformation and combat-readiness capability in deep waters and open oceans by 2025.
Presently, China operates two conventionally-powered carriers, the Type 001 Liaoning, which was known as the ex-Soviet Varyag and commissioned in 2012, and the fully indigenous Type 002 Shandong, which was commissioned in 2017. A third conventional carrier, the Type 003, is currently under construction and likely to enter service in 2024.
A Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center analysis posits that China’s growing carrier force, alongside its developments in other military technologies, particularly anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, has raised the possibility of the US losing a limited war over Taiwan.
As a result, the US could be forced into escalating a limited conflict over Taiwan into a larger regional war. According to the analysis, a Chinese attack on Taiwan would most likely succeed before the US could move enough assets into the area.