Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with large decks are the quintessential representation of the US military might. In areas where the US doesn’t have territorial bases, the Navy’s 11 super-carriers can project superior air power thanks to their limitless range and firepower.
This is why the Chinese Navy has a new aircraft carrier target that resembles the US Navy’s newest and biggest super-carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford.
The PLA-Navy is building up the target aircraft carrier as the USS Gerald R. Ford is homebound after its first full deployment. The deployment period of the US super-carrier was extended because of the Israel-Gaza conflict.
It seems like the PLA-Navy is leaving no stone unturned in acquiring capabilities to neutralize US Navy carriers and strike groups should the tensions escalate in the South China Sea.
China keeps adding anti-access and area denial weapons to its arsenal, with an emphasis on anti-ship capabilities. The nation’s arsenal of land-based, sea-based, and air-launched anti-ship ballistic missiles is rapidly expanding.
This is in addition to the ever-improving anti-ship cruise missiles that can be fired from ever-more-powerful ground-based launchers, ships, and warplanes. The PLA also plans to acquire hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles in the future.
In one of the desert regions of China, a full-size replica of the newest American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford for target practice. pic.twitter.com/uxzWyRcZhY
— S p r i n t e r (@Sprinter99800) January 5, 2024
The image of the new carrier target on the range in the Taklamakan Desert in China’s Xinjiang province came to the fore when Planet Labs took satellite imagery of the region on January 1.
The image clearly shows a full-scale, black silhouette, about 1,085 feet long, shaped like the USS Gerald R. Ford and future carriers in that class. Additionally, there’s a building exactly where Ford’s island is, and four catapult tracks indicated on the “deck” exactly where they are on the actual ship.
The target profile also has the distinctive sponsons and other outcroppings, such as a wider, squared-off stern, that are present on the Ford.
There are several masts positioned all over the new Ford target that serve as radar reflectors, which, when coupled, may replicate the whole radar signature of the actual ship.
Thus, a complete “phantom” carrier can be established in the desert without requiring any major construction. These features help hone the radar seekers for weapons and other sensors and electronic warfare systems.
An analysis of the past imagery indicates that the work on the target carrier began in November 2023. There is also at least one extremely big rail-based movable ship target located in the Taklamakan range complex.
The Chinese military has been using rudimentary ship-shaped targets and concrete rectangles till some time back. The new Ford target is more advanced. It can give more accurate test results. The added touch of realism can also benefit the training.
US Carriers vs Chinese Missiles
While the US Navy has been far ahead in fielding super-carriers, the PLA-Navy’s carrier-building capability is still in a nascent stage. Fujian, China’s third and most technologically advanced aircraft carrier, is anticipated to begin sea trials this year. The warship is considered a leap for the PLA-Navy to bridge the technological gap with the US Navy.
Fujian is a key warship in China’s pursuit to challenge the US Navy’s dominance. Fujian aspires to rival its US counterparts in terms of size and technology.
The Fujian is much bigger than the previous Chinese aircraft carriers. As against the Liaoning’s 60,000 tonnes and the Shandong’s 66,000, the Fujian has a displacement of roughly 80,000 tonnes.
It is much bigger than France’s aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (42,000 tonnes) and the United Kingdom’s HMS Queen Elizabeth (65,000 tonnes). It is smaller than the US Navy’s Ford-class carrier, which has a displacement of 100,000 tonnes.
The only technological disadvantage it has in comparison to the US and French carriers is that they are not nuclear-powered. Fujian is expected to play a key role in “the PLA’s anti-access and area denial strategy” if the United States intervenes in a conflict over Taiwan.
Even as China is still struggling to build a nuclear-powered carrier, it is putting in greater investment in building “carrier-killer” missiles. Beijing recently fired verbal shots at the US from the shoulders of two Chinese maritime analysts, claiming the US Navy was no match for the anti-carrier warfare capabilities of the PLA.
China has been infuriated at the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson CSG in the South China Sea. The carrier battle group consisted of five guided missile cruisers and destroyers, including the Ticonderoga-class USS Princeton, Arleigh Burke-class destroyers USS Hoppers, USS Kidd, USS Sterett, and USS William P. Lawrence. The CSG’s presence in the SCS and the subsequent exercises was claimed to be “part of the US Navy’s routine presence in the Indo-Pacific.”
Two Chinese experts raised questions on the survivability of US aircraft carriers in the face of Chinese long-range missiles.
The US experts, while conceding that the loss of even one carrier will be a big jolt to the US Navy as it is a floating city in itself, contend that despite Chinese efforts to mount an anti-access/area-denial posture in its littoral regions, US carriers are becoming more survivable over time.
Firstly, hundreds of waterproof chambers and redundant electrical and other service conduits are built into every carrier. Given their extensive armor, the ships most likely could not be brought down with anything less than a tactical nuclear bomb.
When deployed, carriers are on the move, making it challenging to pinpoint their precise location. After being spotted, they can travel anywhere in a 700-square-mile radius in 30 minutes at their maximum speed of 35 mph. This gives floating decks the maneuverability to evade any anti-ship weapons.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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