China’s Game-Changing Naval Warfare Capability Revealed

China’s navy appears to be developing a potentially game-changing twin-hull drone carrier as Beijing innovates to stay a step ahead in the future of maritime warfare, an expert told Newsweek.

“Very little is known about this vessel, other than it appears to be quite modest in size. It might be a test platform rather than an operational vessel,” said Sam Roggeveen, Director of the Australian think tank Lowy Institute’s International Security Program.

Naval News, a specialist publication focusing on maritime affairs, revealed the ship’s existence on May 15 based on an analysis of satellite imagery by J. Michael Dahm, a Senior Resident Fellow at the Virginia-based Mitchell Institute.

The pictures show a new carrier-like vessel being built at the Jiangsu Dayang Marine shipyard in Jiangsu province as a catamaran—an unusual design for an aircraft carrier. The official classification and the intended use of the vessel under construction at the eastern China shipyard are unknown.

Got some imagery (4/18) of the new Hudong shipyard, with a nice comparison of the 4th Type 075 landing ship (top) with the new rumored Type 076 amphib/drone carrier (bottom).

You can see how much bigger the Type 076 is: 48m vs 40m wide deck, and ~250m long (so far) vs ~230m. pic.twitter.com/bgi7iXltEm

— Tom Shugart (@tshugart3) May 19, 2024

Meanwhile, China is also building yet another vessel, the 076 landing helicopter dock, which could also function as a drone carrier. The Type 076 is being built at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard and was recently seen during the first sea trial of the Fujian, China’s third aircraft carrier, according to the South China Morning Post.

“Typically, such a ship would carry helicopters, but it is speculated that the Type 076 will having a unique new capability—the capacity to launch large drones using electromagnetic catapults,” Roggeveen told Newsweek.

China’s military ambitions, including efforts to assemble a world-class navy and develop electromagnetic weapons and supersonic missiles, are a growing concern for the U.S.

Drones have upended the balance of warfare in the Russia-Ukraine war as the Ukrainian forces have dealt a severe blow to the Kremlin’s naval power with autonomous drones.

Experts argue that a small carrier taking drones to far-off locations will provide an even more potent means of targeting enemy assets. China recently started sea trials for the Fujian, which will be fully inducted into the navy once the tests are complete.

Newsweek contacted the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the U.S. Department of Defense for comment in a request sent via email.

A drone is shown in a military parade in China on October 01, 2019, in Beijing. China appears to be building a maritime drone carrier, according to Naval News

Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images News/iStock

Turkey recently launched its first drone carrier as other countries also race to develop vessels that can host drones.

“Turkey did recently launch a drone carrier, but much smaller and without catapults. If the Type 076 turns out as described above (it is too early in the construction process to know for sure), then it will be capable of launching heavy attack drones with ‘fifth generation’ stealth capabilities,” Roggeveen said.

Despite satellite imagery of the mystery vessel being built in Jiangsu revealing a flight deck that could potentially launch drones, there are still some doubts about the vessel’s intended use.

Dahm told Breaking Defense in an interview that the true purpose of the mystery vessel under construction will be known only when it is “complete and operational.”

Dahm further added that if it is indeed a drone carrier, the vessel “will allow the PLA Navy Blue Force to launch and recover fixed-wing drones at sea.” That could allow China to test drone operations, potentially leading to their use on China’s new Type 075 amphibious assault ships, also currently under construction.

The PLA calls its own forces the “Red” force, while the “Blue” force refers to an opposing enemy force. Dahm said the ship’s designation as a “Blue Force” vessel suggests it may have an experimental role.

Dean Cheng, a Chinese military expert at the American think tank U.S. Institute of Peace, told Breaking Defense that the ship—if confirmed as a drone carrier—shows the PLA is “a learning organization” with the “real ability to be flexible and innovative.”

“It is willing to experiment, which is not what we associate with either authoritarian militaries, or the PLA,” Cheng said.

Update 23/5/24, 3:10 a.m. ET: This article was updated to clarify the difference between the new drone carrier at the Jiangsu Dayang Marine shipyard and the Type 076 helicopter landing dock at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard.

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Aadil Brar