• Liaoning launches a J-15.

Liaoning launches a J-15. (Photo : US Navy)

It's official: China's third aircraft carrier won't be equipped with the troublesome electromagnetic aircraft launch system and will use the conventional steam powered system instead.

Over the past two years, speculation has remained rife the third carrier of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will come with an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) somewhat similar to the one aboard the new U.s. Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) due to launch this year.

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EMALS is being developed by U.S. defense contractor General Atomics for the Gerald R. Ford-class of aircraft carriers, which will consist of three ships. EMALS launches aircraft from an aircraft catapult using a linear motor drive instead of the conventional steam piston drive.

Its main advantage is it allows for a more graded acceleration, inducing less stress on the aircraft's airframe. It's also lighter than a steam catapult system and cheaper to operate. In addition, EMALS can launch aircraft that are heavier or lighter than those handled by steam catapults.

PLAN's third carrier, tentatively identified as the Type 002, will be equipped with at least three conventional steam launch catapults, said sources in the navy. It will be the first of China's three carriers to use this launch system in service with the U.S. Navy for decades.

PLAN's two other carriers, the CNS Liaoning (CV-16) and the CNS Shandong (CV-17) use a "ski jump" located at their bows to launch their complement of Shenyang J-15 multirole fighters. All three carriers are powered by steam turbines. An aircraft carrier must be nuclear powered to deploy EMALS.

Sources in PLAN admit there are some technical problems applying nuclear propulsion to the Type 002, which will therefore have to use steam catapults.

The Type 002 is expected to be launched in 2021. Commissioning the ship might be a problem because China has been unable to manufacture enough J-15 fighters to arm all three carriers. PLAN only operates some 20 J-15s, and most of these are with the Liaoning.