Is China Building an “Aircraft Carrier in Disguise?”

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Is China Building an “Aircraft Carrier in Disguise?”

A new report suggests China isn’t building a second carrier but rather a new amphibious assault ship.

Earlier this month a series of pictures posted on Chinese military forums appeared to show that China was building its first indigenous aircraft carrier, prompting much speculation and commentary including from The Diplomat.

Now some claim that this narrative might have been mistaken.

According to Japan’s Kyodo News, Kanwa Information Center, a private Canadian think tank, has published a report that claims that the pictures do not show an aircraft carrier. Instead, the Kanwa report—which is based on Ukraine military sources— says the vessel under construction is China’s first amphibious assault ship capable of carrying hovercraft and helicopters.

In other words, if the report is accurate, China is building a Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA)-like ship not completely unlike the Izumo-class helicopter destroyer Japan launched earlier this month, which Chinese analysts referred to as an “aircraft carrier in disguise.”  

Kanwa says the vessel is being built at a shipyard on Shanghai's Changxing Island and could be commissioned as early as 2015. It will reportedly displace 35,000 tons, roughly double what China’s three existing Type 071 amphibious assault ships, which displace between 17,000-20,000 tons, according to Sino-Defense. The same source says the Type 071 ships were built by Shanghai-based Hudong-Zhonghua Shipyard. The location of Changxing Island, suggests that Jiangnan Shipyard is constructing the new vessel.

Japan’s Izumo-class helicopter destroyer reportedly displaces between 20,000-25,000-tons.

China’s new LHA will carry four hovercraft and up to 20 helicopters, according to Kyodo News, which cited the Kanawa report.

There’s reason to think the Kanwa report is accurate. Indeed, last November a Chinese admiral told CCTV, China’s official broadcaster, that the PLAN was building a 40,000-ton amphibious assault ship similar to the U.S. Navy’s LHA.

According to China-Defense Mashup, Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo said on CCTV last November, “WZ-10 and WZ-19 may deployed in China’s future amphibious assault ship. And China now is developing a new generation of amphibious ship, 40000 ton displacement, like U.S. Navy Landing Helicopter Assault LHD ship. The heavy transportation helicopters on this amphibious assault ship will be escorted by armed choppers like WZ-10 and WZ-19.”

The 2013 U.S. Department of Defense report on China’s military said that, “China will also begin construction on a new Type 081-class landing helicopter assault ship within the next five years.” Others have speculated about the Type 081-class LHA ship, although previously they have reported its displacement in the low 20,000s.

Incidentally, China’s state media reported on Monday before the Kyodo report was published that its first indigenously built attack helicopter, the WZ-10, fired its first air-to-air missiles last week in a live drill in Guangdong Province.

“China's first self-developed modern military attack helicopter WZ-10 has launched its first air-to-air missile and successfully intercepted low-altitude targets,” state media said.

It’s worth pointing out that China could be building an LHA-like vessel and another aircraft carrier, although Kanwa said the photos from earlier this month were of the LHA, not an aircraft carrier.