Will China's Type 076 be a drone carrier or a light aircraft carrier?

If the construction of a successor to the Chinese Navy's Type 075 amphibious assault helicopter carrier, called Type 076, has been discussed since 2020, the characteristics and exact function of this ship have given rise to numerous speculations, enriched official Chinese statements.

This is how over the years, the Type 076 went from an LHD (Landing Helicopter Dock), like the Type 075, to an assault drone carrier, replacing part of its assault helicopters and attack, by fixed-wing drones, to ensure protection and support functions for the ship and dismounted troops.

Recent photos appearing on social networks, showing the progress of the construction of the first ship of the class, by the CSSC shipyards in Shanghai, show that, as mentioned, the ship will indeed have a catapult, and will therefore have the ability to implement these fixed-wing combat drones.

However, the size of the ship, and the length of the trench which will accommodate its single catapult, outlines another possibility, that of using the Type 076, as a light aircraft carrier, a class of ship which disappeared with the withdrawal of the HMS illustrations of the Royal Navy, in 2014, but which seems to regain appeal in recent years.

Construction of China's first Type 076 assault aircraft carrier advances rapidly in Shanghai

The construction of the first Type 076 was publicly announced in September 2023 by Shanghai's Hudong-Zhonghua Shipyard, marking the end of the design phase, and the start of the construction phase. Nine months later, the ship's hull has advanced considerably, to the point that the website Navalnews.com now estimates its launch for the beginning of 2025.

type 076 CSSC Shanghai
one of the last shots, particularly clear, showing the progress of the construction of the Type 076 in Shanghai. Note the trench for the catapula on the port bow.

If Type 076 does not deny its relationship with Type 075, it will, however, be very different from its ancestor. Thus, the ship should be around 10 meters longer, and above all much wider, so as to have a much larger right flight deck. It should, therefore, reach a tonnage of 45 tons loaded, 000 tons more than the Type 10, putting it on par with the LHAs of the America class of the US Navy, as well as with the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.

We see, in the photos taken by Chinese airline passengers, then posted on the internet, that the ship will have a double island, like the British aircraft carriers of the Queen Elizabeth class, and the Italian aircraft carrier Trieste , probably for chimney issues.

According to the specialist of the naval News site, it will also be equipped with gas turbine propulsion. This proves more effective in reaching the speeds required for fixed-wing aviation maneuvers. In addition, it will be equipped with at least one side elevator, allowing fluid movement on the flight deck, without hindering aircraft maneuvers.

A 100-meter catapult, similar to those of the Chinese Navy's new CV18 Fujian aircraft carrier

But the most determining point, concerning the Type 076 under construction, is undoubtedly the trench intended to accommodate the electromagnetic catapult which will allow the launch of fixed-wing aircraft, at maximum loading.

Type 076 construction
The Type 076 will be 10 tons heavier than the Type 075 which precedes it in the Chinese Navy.

In fact, it reaches a length of 100 meters (estimated), i.e. the same as those equipping the new heavy aircraft carrier CV18 Fujian. Associated with a top speed of 25 knots or more, thanks to the gas turbines, the Type 076 will therefore, theoretically, be able to launch particularly heavy on-board devices, requiring a “long” catapult to reach the required initial speed.

However, until now, the drone models observed during movement tests on the model of the Type 076 flight deck, are models close to the GJ-11, a stealth combat drone in the 6 ton category, do not would in no way require such a catapult to take to the air at maximum load.

The question therefore arises of the future function of the Type 076, or, more particularly, of its on-board aerial group.

Drone carrier, LHD or light aircraft carrier, what will the Type 076 be used for

The recent photos published, concerning the construction of the first ship, shed some light on this subject. First, this one seems to retain its rear baseplate, and will therefore retain its amphibious function, like the Type 075 from which it is derived. Moreover, the shape and size of this raft seem identical to that of the latter, despite a wider hull.

type 075 LHD Chinese Navy
The Chinese Navy currently has 3 LHD Type 075s, with a fourth ship close to launch.

Obviously, moreover, the Chinese Navy is preparing to deploy, in addition to the Z-8, Z-10 and Z-20 helicopters which already arm the Type 075, combat drones, as shown by the training carried out with models of these drones, on the ship's training deck. In fact, the LHD function of the ship, like that of a drone carrier, therefore appears to be confirmed. But the Type 076 could do more.

Indeed, as mentioned previously, the presence of a long electromagnetic catapult, gas turbine propulsion, and at least one lateral elevator, suggests that the Type 076 could also carry particularly heavy fixed-wing aircraft. , and therefore, probably, flown, whether it is the J-35, the J-15T or the KJ-600 air surveillance aircraft.

The fact that the ship only has a straight deck would tend to indicate that the number of these aircraft will be limited, since the deck will have to be cleared for each major flight, not allowing a sustained rate of aerial rotations. However, such a configuration should make it possible to support between 20 and 30 maneuvers per day (catapulting or landing), which corresponds to an onboard fleet of around ten aircraft.

A complete aero-amphibious combat ship close to the US Navy's America class

Thus, the Type 076 would come close to the capabilities of the America class LHAs, which carry around twenty aircraft, including around ten F-35Bs, by having a relatively similar fleet in volume, shared between combat aircraft. piloted supported by combat drones, and assault and attack helicopters.

LHA America in light aircraft carrier mode
The US Navy's LHA America in light aircraft carrier version, with around twenty F-35Bs on board.

It could, moreover, depending on needs, favor one type or another of its capabilities, depending on whether it must be used in the function of amphibious assault, or light aircraft carrier, by adapting the composition of its embarked air group, or even by using spaces dedicated to amphibious forces, to support the embarked aviation function.

Having a new class of this type would, in fact, allow the Chinese Navy to counter, equally, the flexibility conferred by the America class LHAs, for the US Navy, by increasing the fleet if necessary. amphibious ships, or aircraft carriers, depending on whether we are on a power projection or interdiction mission.

Conclusion

We will still have to wait for these informed hypotheses to become certainties concerning the operational potential of the Type 076. However, knowing that concurrently with the construction of the first Type 076, the Hudong-Zhonghua shipyards also built the fourth unit of the Type 075 class, this tends to reinforce the idea that the new ship will be much more than an advanced LHA, and that it will have extensive capabilities in terms of onboard aviation.

The construction of this class also shows to what extent the technological and capability gap separating the Chinese Navy and the US Navy tends to narrow quickly. The US Navy estimates, in this regard, that it will still have the upper hand in this area until the end of the decade, largely thanks to its naval aviation units and its submarines. Beyond that, however, the subject is much more open.

Chinese Navy J-35
Will the J-35 find its way aboard the Type 076 like the F-35B aboard the America classes?

However, in the event of a conflict around Taiwan, at that time, China could rely on two decisive assets to gain the upper hand over the American fleet. The first is the proximity of the autonomous island to the Chinese mainland, and therefore, to the air bases and missile sites of the People's Liberation Army.

The second advantage, no less decisive, is based on Chinese naval industrial resources, representing 65% of world shipbuilding. The Chinese Navy will therefore have with a capacity for regeneration and repair, considerably higher than that available to the US Navy.

In any case, between increasingly efficient ships, and produced more and more quickly, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for the US Navy to take up, alone, the Chinese challenge in the Pacific. , while time continues to work in Beijing's favor.

Article from June 18 in full until July 27, 2024

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