Online imagery and social media postings by workers of China’s top shipbuilder show the country is probably building a next-generation amphibious assault dock equipped with an advanced electromagnetic aircraft launch system, analysts said.
The photo showed the workers holding a banner marking the completion of engineering work, but it did not specify the date.
According to Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at the Taiwanese naval academy in Kaohsiung, progress in building the new dry dock suggests China is pressing ahead with the construction of a new giant warship, and that vessel is most likely to be the Type 076 assault dock.
The Type 075, which has a displacement of nearly 40,000 tonnes, is slightly smaller than the US Navy’s Tarawa and Wasp-class amphibious assault ships. It is, however, a significant upgrade from its predecessor, the 25,000-tonne Type 071.
The Type 076, which will be similar in size to the Type 075, is expected to be equipped with the most advanced type of electromagnetic launch system – the technology that is used on the Fujian aircraft carrier – but the catapult system will mainly be used for launching unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UCAVs), according to Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie.
“If the Central Military Commission decides to go full steam ahead with the Type 076 programme, then [China] will have more Type 076 [vessels] than Type 075 LHDs,” said Li, referring to the PLA’s top decision making commission chaired by President Xi Jinping.
The CSIS satellite imagery also showed a new basin measuring around 760 metres by 280 metres, or three-quarters the size of the largest basin in the Jiangnan shipyard where the giant platform of the Fujian carrier was built.
“The unfinished building and other specific constructions on the Hudong-Zhonghua new dry dock shown by the online imagery tell us that the shipyard is preparing for building new giant warships,” Lu said.
“Based on the size of the dry dock and the basin nearby, it’s very likely that it is the Type 076 amphibious helicopter dock with an electromagnetic catapult,” he added.
Meanwhile, another CSSC subsidiary, the Huangpu-Wenchong Shipyard in Guangzhou, has announced it will build 150-metre-wide gantry cranes. Each of the cranes would hold more than 2,800 tonnes, according to an official statement by the company on September 3. It said the new order would be complete by April.
Based on the size and load capacity, it appeared the gantry cranes would be used to build the Type 076, said Macau-based military commentator Antony Wong Tong.
“The statement [by the Huangpu-Wenchong Shipyard] indicated the CSSC wanted the Guangzhou shipyard to share some of the shipbuilding loads of Hudong-Zhonghua, and that will help balance the development of the shipbuilding industry in northern, eastern and southern China,” he said.
Li said that while China had not begun building second-generation ship-borne aircraft or any light ship-based aircraft similar to the American F-35B aircraft, the Type 076 LHD was seen as comparable to the American Tarawa and Wasp-class amphibious assault ships.
“[The] design of the Type 076 LHDs is more advanced than the American Tarawa and Wasp-class amphibious assault ships, which do not have catapult systems,” Li said.
He said the PLA’s Type 071 and Type 075 were designed with an eye to a possible war over Taiwan, but the Type 076 was more ambitious, with an ability to fight further afield because of its more advanced design.
“The Type 076 can function as a helicopter and drone carrier for China, which faces territorial challenges from rival claimants in the [South China Sea] region,” Li added.