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China's first aircraft carrier may become test bed for top flight electromagnetic warplane launcher

China is considering equipping its only serving aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, with a hi-tech launch system that will render its ski-jump flight deck obsolete and create a platform for training pilots in the latest naval aviation skills.

A retired PLA Navy officer told the South China Morning Post that the 14-degree deck on the Soviet-built ship might be fitted with electromagnetic catapults.

"This will make the Liaoning a training platform to fly warplanes for China's next generation aircraft carrier, the Type 002," the officer said on condition of anonymity.

"It's just a proposal because pilots on the ski-jump aboard the Liaoning will become less important after its sister ship, the Type 001A, goes into service later this year."

Using the lessons learned in refitting the Liaoning, originally a Soviet Kuznetsov class carrier acquired in 1998, China launched the Type 001A in April 2017. It is likely to be named Shandong when it enters service on a date that could be as early as the navy's anniversary in late April, according to Beijing-based naval analyst Li Jie.

The Type 002, meanwhile, will be fitted with catapults similar to those found on the nuclear-powered USS Gerald Ford, which uses the world's most advanced electromagnetic aircraft launch system.

The system would allow the PLA Navy to launch planes carrying a greater weapons payload and more fuel, expanding operations.

Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said the possibility of a refit for electromagnetic launchers was raised after shipbuilders found the Liaoning to be compatible.

It wrapped up a week-long sea trial in the Yellow Sea last week after a nine-month long refit " its first major upgrade since it was commissioned in 2012.

"The original design of the Liaoning wasted too much space because of a lack of carrier building experience [among experts working in the former Soviet Union]," Zhou said, adding that China removed some of the carrier's original weapons systems, including Granit anti-ship missiles.

"China needs to train carrier-based pilots to take off from electromagnetic catapult systems and land on a floating and shaking platform when the carrier is at full-speed, which is close to real battle training."

Both the Liaoning and its sister ship, the Type 001A, as well as the new Type 002, use conventional propulsion, meaning their fighting capabilities lag behind the US' nuclear-powered carriers.

Hong Kong-based military expert Song Zhongping said, however, that the chance of refitting the Liaoning with electromagnetic launchers was slim because of the costs involved.

"Refitting work is too comprehensive and too complicated. I don't think it's necessary to do such a difficult project," he said.

But Zhou said time was more important than cost, given the need to train pilots quickly to meet China's long-term goal of having a minimum of four carrier battle groups in service by 2035.

"A professional carrier-based fighter pilot needs at least 10,000 hours of on-ground and on-board training, while current training for Chinese pilots is limited to a ground-based simulated electromagnetic launch system near Bohai Bay [in the inner waters of the Yellow Sea]," he said.

"If Chinese marine pilots now start take-off and landing training with on-board electromagnetic launchers, they will take at least four years to meet the [10,000 hours] goal."

Beijing is keen to expand its carrier groups to fulfil its naval ambitions and defend its growing overseas interests. Construction of the Type 002 began last year and the vessel is expected to be launched by 2025.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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