China is weighing up fitting its only operational aircraft carrier with a futuristic launch system as it aims to match US naval power.
A plan is being considered to fit electromagnetic catapults to the Liaoning aircraft carrier in advance of a new generation of carriers entering service, reports the South China Morning Post
The technology is similar to systems on the nuclear-powered USS Gerald Ford and enables warplanes to be launched with bigger weapons payloads and more fuel.
A new Chinese aircraft carrier – the Type 001A – will enter service later this year. Construction of another – Type 002 – began last year and the vessel is scheduled to be launched by 2025.
The Soviet-built Liaoning may be fitted with electromagnetic catapults to train pilots for service on the new carriers.
'This will make the Liaoning a training platform to fly warplanes for China's next generation aircraft carrier, the Type 002,' a People's Liberation Army Navy officer, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Post.
Warplanes currently flying from the Liaoning rely on steam-driven catapult technology which includes a distinctive ‘ski jump' ramp.
Electromagnetic technology draws on electric currents to generate magnetic fields that propel an aircraft on a carriage at high speeds.
It wants to have at least four aircraft carriers – expected to be equipped with electromagnetic catapults – in service by 2035.
'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,' said Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming.
But Chinese naval pilots lag a long way behind the US and its allies in the crucial area of training, Zhou explained.
'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 aircraft carriers to achieve its global naval ambitions and defend its growing overseas interests.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has made the expansion and modernisation of the navy a major goal.