May 18, 2024

China is quietly building the world’s first drone carrier

The previously unreported drone carrier (A) is longer but narrower than two drone motherships (C, D) built at the same yard. There are also several high-tech target barges (B, F), including one which mimics an aircraft carrier (E). Credit: Naval News.

When the Yamato set sail on August 8, 1940, it was the largest battleship in the world. Its main battery consisted of nine 45-caliber guns, capable of firing huge 18-inch shells. Fully loaded, Yamato displaced about 70,000 tons of water, outweighing even the biggest Allied battleships by more than 20 percent.

However, in the 80 years since the Japanese ship was sunk by the U.S. Navy, no other larger battleship was ever built. That’s because World War II changed naval warfare forever. The age of the battleship had ended to make way for the age of the carrier.

We don’t want another world war to see the next iteration trialed by fire, but an increasing number of experts are making the case that the time of the aircraft carrier has passed too. If that’s the case, what will the carrier be replaced by?

Recent analyses by Naval News and J. Michael Dahm, a Senior Resident Fellow at the Mitchell Institute, indicate that to get a feel of where the wind is blowing from, one is advised to look to China.

China has quietly launched a revolutionary new type of aircraft carrier. However, this is not a conventional carrier. Hidden away in a shipyard on the Yangtze River, this vessel is probably the world’s first dedicated fixed-wing drone carrier.

A New Era of Naval Warfare

Unlike China’s previous three known carriers, this new vessel is smaller and designed specifically for drones, naval analysts argue. Its flight deck is about a third the length and half the width of traditional U.S. or Chinese Navy carriers. This unique design is incompatible with modern mission demands for aircraft. For instance, there’s not enough room to allow fixed-wing aircraft like the J-20 (China’s F35s) to take off and land at the same time. There are no visible hangars either.

This is either the worst aircraft carrier in the world or, much more likely, we’re looking at the world’s first dedicated carrier for drones, signaling a shift in naval warfare.

“It is immediately apparent that it is, in general arrangement, an aircraft carrier of some sort. It has a marked runaway running along the port (left side) with an island superstructure on the starboard (right) side,” wrote H. I. Sutton, defense analyst for Naval News.

“Beyond this, it is unusual in every respect. The hull is a widely spaced catamaran. While catamarans are often featured in aircraft carrier concepts because they allow a large deck area, no one has actually built one before. Additionally, analysis of satellite imagery shows that the flight deck is very low. It appears unlikely there is a hangar deck below the flight deck. If there is, its ceiling is very low. Therefore, it does not appear designed to support high tempo or prolonged flight operations.” 

“The flight deck is wide enough to comfortably operate aircraft or drones with a wingspan of around 20 meters (65 feet) such as Chinese equivalents of the Predator drone.” 

“However, the mere existence of a flight deck suggests that aircraft intend to land on it. A catapult or launch rail of some form would be sufficient for launch if recovery wasn’t necessary.”

Are aircraft carriers on their way out?

The Gerald. R. Ford aircraft carrier. Credit: U.S. Navy.

Previously, the United States has been criticized for its stubbornness in investing in aircraft carriers, which are now considered highly vulnerable to modern hypersonic missile technologies.

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The US Navy’s reliance on aircraft carriers dates back to World War II. Then, these vessels played a crucial role in the Pacific Theater following the destruction of battleships at Pearl Harbor. Aircraft carriers, being mobile warplane launchers, became central to US strategy and demonstrated their effectiveness, leading to their continued use and development for decades. Today, the cost of building a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, such as the Gerald R. Ford-class, is upwards of $13.3 billion. And it costs additional hundreds of millions for maintenance. The US has 11 such carriers, the largest and most advanced fleet in the world.

However, these carriers are now akin to the outdated battleships they once replaced. Modern warfare has introduced massive arsenals of long- and intermediate-range missiles that can overwhelm the defenses of aircraft carriers. China, in particular, has developed significant anti-ship capabilities that could render US carriers ineffective in a potential conflict over Taiwan. Additionally, the Houthi Rebels in Yemen have demonstrated the asymmetrical threat posed by cheaper anti-ship missiles, capable of disrupting US naval operations and international maritime trade.

When a hypersonic missile that costs a few million is capable of sinking a multi-billion dollar carrier, a strategic shift may be required. Experts have advised focusing instead on enhancing and expanding the submarine fleet, while at the same time investing in smaller, cheaper, yet more agile surface ships.

A mystery drone carrier

At the same time, drones are becoming integral to modern naval strategies. Leading navies, including those of the U.S. and China, are already testing drones on conventional aircraft carriers. Some countries, like Iran and Turkey, are experimenting with the idea of drone carriers. However, China’s new ship marks the first fully dedicated drone carrier, setting a major precedent in naval technology.

The shipyard where this carrier was built, Jiangsu Dayang Marine, is known for producing simulated enemy ships for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The Chinese Navy is extremely diligent and thorough in these situations, going as far as producing one-to-one copies of Western ships, including full-size U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, for the sole purpose of blowing them up with their experimental missiles.

What’s intriguing is that at the same shipyard, right next to the drone carrier, are two large drone motherships, along with some target barges, one of which has the outline of an aircraft carrier.

It’s bizarre to see this vessel — which by all accounts seems designed to be a drone carrier — in a shipyard known for making high-tech naval test targets. There are no Western vessels of a similar design or purpose, so what ship is this supposed to mimic? For now, this ship remains a mystery, but one that may foretell the future of naval warfare.

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