China’s Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is reportedly planning to field a new and entirely unique type of medium weight aircraft carrier in the near future, which is expected to be based on the Type 075 Class assault carrier design. The first two Type 075 Class ships were launched during the past year, with a third currently under construction, and each displaces approximately 40,000 tons and can accommodate between 20 and 30 aircraft. The Type 075 notably was not designed exclusively to deploy fixed wing aircraft – although they are still likely to do so in the near future once China develops a fighter class capable of carrying out vertical landings as the American Harrier II and F-35B currently do. The new carrier however, dubbed the Type 076 Class, is being developed with the primary purpose of deploying unmanned fixed wing aircraft, and according to some reports will integrate both arresting gear an electromagnetic catapult launch system (EMALS) to allow drones to take off with higher weights from its short runway and to make conventional landings.
Chinese Type 075 Class Assault Carrier
Developing a carrier exclusively for fixed wing drones has never been attempted before, but has a number of possible advantages as drones generally require less maintenance, take up less space and can often be more efficient than their manned counterparts. Plans for investment in this kind of carrier notably come as China has emerged as a world leader in drone warfare, deploying more known classes of combat drone than any other country. Leading Chinese designs have ranged from lightweight and low cost Wing Loong platforms – analogous to the American MQ-9 Reaper, to the Sharp Sword flying wing stealth platform and the recently revealed WZ-8 hypersonic surveillance drone. It is likely that the upcoming Type 076 Class ships will deploy an air wing primarily comprised of stealthy attack drones – possibly a contingent of around 25 or 30 – with these drones also expected to be deployed by the country’s upcoming Type 002 Class supercarriers.
GJ-11 Flying Wing Attack Drone
It remains to be seen whether the Type 076 Class ships will be integrated into carrier groups alongside heavier supercarriers, or whether they will be assigned as capital ships at the centre of carrier groups of their own. Other questions surrounding the program include whether it will replace the Type 075 Class in production or will be produced alongside it. China is building destroyers at a much faster rate than any other country, launching between 6 and 10 of the ships per year in the final years of the 2010s, and its new Type 055 Class destroyers are widely considered the most capable and most heavily armed in the world. The possibility has also been raised that the new Type 076 Class ships will deploy helicopters for anti submarine warfare roles and airborne early warning helicopters to improve situational awareness.