Naval Air: Chinese Aircraft Carriers Go CATOBAR



December 25, 2023: Satellite photos have shown the latest Chinese aircraft carrier, the 80,000-t0n Fujian (CV-18), with a flat flight deck and using catapult to launch aircraft. The satellite photos revealed Fujian testing its catapult by simply launching objects across the deck and into the sea. This is the CAT part of the CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off Barrier Arrested Recovery) system used by American carriers and allows aircraft to take off carrying more weight of fuel or weapons than STOBAR (short take-off but arrested recovery) launch aircraft. STOBAR does not use a catapult but has a curved (Ski Jump) flight deck and is cheaper and less complicated.

Moreover, the front wheel of the Chinese Liaoning J-15 carrier aircraft is of the type required to handle catapult launches. While China has only STOBAR carriers, its J-15s can use some refueling pods instead of weapons if they have to carry out some long-range attack mission with smart bombs or anti-ship missiles.

CATOBAR systems are more expensive to install, use and maintain. Until recently CATOBAR systems were operated using a complex steam generating system. A more recent design uses EMALS (electromagnetic aircraft launch system) that the Fujian and the latest Americans nuclear powered carrier use. Once debugged, an EMALS system is more efficient and reliable than the steam catapult system. China will never use steam-powered catapults because its first, and all subsequent carriers will use EMALS.

The United States, France and Russia use CATOBAR systems, which has never been seen on Chinese aircraft carriers before. This is the reason why China finally decided to switch to CATOBOR starting with their third carrier. But that would mean more problems for the J-15, which was already considered a bit too heavy for a carrier-based jet fighter. Taking off heavier via CATOBAR would put more stress on the J-15 and it is becoming obvious that the J-15 will encounter more reliability problems because of that. China has to keep using J-15s until the new aircraft appears. China could build a hundred more J-15s, while adjusting and tweaking the aircraft to fix flaws and be able to continue operations on the two STOBAR carriers while developing a new carrier capable jet fighter.

The new Chinese carrier fighter is the J-35 and is apparently a carrier version of the J-31 stealth fighter, which is still under development. Within a decade China will have at least one, and probably two carriers using EMALS catapults and carrying 40 J-35 fighters plus four to six support aircraft and helicopters.




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