The People’s Liberation Army - Navy is taking specific measures to maintain and upgrade its first indigenously built aircraft carrier which has already been operational for two years.
A Chinese government-backed newspaper describes it as “maintenance and refurbishment,” suggesting the carrier will be more combat capable following the procedures. The Global Times newspaper says the sub-systems and some of the ship’s technologies have been subject to wear and tear, such as the arresting gear, power systems, pipelines and electronics.
However, an interesting element of the upgrades buried among the list of enhancement includes the refreshing of a “non-skid” coating on the flight deck. Significantly, the US Navy has in recent years added non-skid coating to the deck of its America-class amphibs for the specific purpose of supporting the vertical landing of the F-35B. The material enables the flight deck to better withstand the heat associated with a vertical landing by reinforcing the deck itself.
Several years ago, the US Navy modified its first in class America-class amphib for F-35B operations by adding non-skid materials to the deck as well as reinforced structures below the flight deck.
Certainly non-skid could help with most kinds of fighter jet landings, but this development raises the interesting question as to whether the Chinese are working on or even planning an F-35B vertical take-off-and-landing copycat 5th generation aircraft. China is of course known to be building and preparing a carrier-launched stealthy J-31 aircraft, yet China is not known to have any kind of 5th-generation vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.
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This is something which clearly seems to put the Chinese Navy at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to projecting 5th-generation air power in a maritime warfare environment. Vertical take-off technology would enable 5th-generation aircraft to operate from ships with smaller deck-space such as amphibious assault ships and also enable a much more expansive target envelope for maritime air attack.
Copying, mirroring or attempting to simply “replicate” US platforms would not be considered surprising for the Chinese, as the Pentagon has long reported curious similarities between some of the visible configurations and technologies woven into the F-35 and the Chinese J-20 and J-31 aircraft. Many public reports and public Congressional papers have specifically raised the concern about Chinese cyber espionage.
At the same time, apart from any potential “ripping-off” of US strategies and technologies, enhancements to China’s aircraft carriers are of significance to the US deterrence posture, particularly in the Pacific.
For example, not long after the US Navy conducted dual-carrier attack preparation exercises in the Pacific, China used two carriers to do the exact same thing. China’s growing carrier fleet, and the continued modernization which goes into them, presents a substantial threat to the US, Taiwan, Japan and other Pacific allies, given that it enables China to conduct massive air-attack operations offshore within the vast, expansive ocean areas throughout the Pacific theater.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.