Military chiefs have given green light for new integrated propulsion system capable of powering electromagnetic catapults, experts say
A technological breakthrough in naval propulsion will enable China’s second home-grown aircraft carrier to use the world’s most advanced jet launch system without having to resort to nuclear power, overcoming a huge hurdle in the vessel’s development, military sources said.
The development of the integrated propulsion system (IPS) would allow the vessel to be more efficient, allowing more power for an electromagnetic catapult, rather than a less technologically advanced steam-driven catapult launch system, the sources said.
China’s first two carriers, the Liaoning and its sister ship, the Type 001A, are conventionally powered vessels equipped with Soviet-designed ski-jump launch systems.
But an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) on the Type 002, China’s second home-grown aircraft carrier, would mean less wear and tear on the planes and allow more aircraft to be launched in a shorter time than the ski and steam-catapult systems.
According to a source close to the People’s Liberation Army, China’s Central Military Commission was keen to use EMALS on the Type 002.
“[But] the obstacle … was whether a conventionally powered carrier would be able to support EMALS, and now that problem has been solved,” the person, who is close to the PLA’s equipment department, told the South China Morning Post.
The solution was provided by a team led by China’s top naval engineer Rear Admiral Ma Weiming, which developed a medium-voltage, direct-current transmission network to replace an earlier system based on alternating current.
As a result, the CMC, which is chaired by President Xi Jinping, has said the development of the Type 002, which had long been delayed, would get under way “soon”, the source said.
Wang Ping, an expert in military technology at the Institute of Electrical Engineering under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said the innovative design meant that high-energy consuming launch systems and weapons could now be used on a vessel driven by conventional power.
[China’s first home-grown aircraft carrier Liaoning sails into Hong Kong waters in July. Photo: Felix Wong]
“It wasn’t just a simple switch from alternating to direct current, but a complete overhaul of the energy supply and distribution system – from steam boilers to the energy storage device,” he said.
Wang added that in the future, the same technology could be used to launch not just aircraft, but also missiles and satellites, and maybe even power high-speed trains.
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A naval expert close to the carrier project confirmed that the CMC was now planning to proceed with the new power option.
“China doesn’t need to copy the United States and use nuclear reactors to support EMALS and other energy-hungry weapons on the ship, because it now has more advanced technologies to solve the problem,” the naval expert said.
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The use of new power systems on the Type 002 is in line with the goals set out in Xi’s work report delivered at last month’s national Communist Party congress that China’s military should modernise by 2035 and become a top-ranked force by 2050.
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“China now has mature technologies … [and] the PLA is narrowing the gap with the US,” the naval expert said.
He added that the US used an integrated propulsion system on its first USS Zumwalt-class destroyer, which was launched in 2013, but that it was not as advanced as the second-generation technology developed by Ma and his team.
In March, Ma, who is based at the PLA Naval University of Engineering in the central China city of Wuhan, told state broadcaster CCTV that the “ultimate aim” of his work on the IPS technology was to “solve the problem of deploying high-energy weapons” from ships.
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He also said on the sidelines of the annual National People’s Congress in Beijing that China’s EMALS technology was more advanced and more reliable than the system used on the nuclear-powered USS Gerald Ford supercarrier.
The world’s largest and most expensive super warship – and the first to use both EMALS and advanced arresting gear – completed its maiden arrested landing and launch operation in late July, a week after its commission to the US Navy.