Whispers of 076, China’s Drone Carrying Assault Carrier

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Whispers of 076, China’s Drone Carrying Assault Carrier

What do we know so far about China’s next amphibious assault ship?

Whispers of 076, China’s Drone Carrying Assault Carrier

A Type 075 LHD at sea trials in 2020.

Credit: Sina Weibo

One of the most recent and fast-moving credible rumors to come from the online communities watching the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a new landing helicopter dock (LHD) type vessel dubbed the 076. This 076 class LHD was first brought to the attention of the community in mid-2020, and in a rather unprecedented fashion a number of official request for proposal documents were found, and some credible insiders with established track records began to speak about the details of 076. It then reached a number of overseas and English language news outlets.

The 076 is described as an LHD – following on from, or perhaps complementing, the 075 class LHD – however, it is believed to be capable of conducting fixed wing flight operations via electromagnetic catapult (EMCAT) and arresting gear. Indeed, the greatest difference between the 076 compared to the 075 LHD, or other LHDs such as the U.S. Navy’s Wasp or America classes, is that the 076 is described as providing a similar capability as the F-35B gave to U.S. Navy LHDs, but without using a vertical short take off and landing (VSTOL) aircraft.

As if it was not already rather jarring to consider an LHD equipped with catapults and arresting gear – essentially making such a ship technically a “CATOBAR” carrier (Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery) – those same insiders then revealed the primary fixed wing complement of 076 would consist of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or UCAVs for combat). Specific types of UAVs and UCAVs included a flying wing UCAV (possibly a navalized derivative of the GJ-11, a mockup of which was shown at the 70th anniversary National Day parade in 2019), as well as a conventional high altitude long endurance UAV known as “Wind Shadow,” which has previously been observed at the catapult testing facility at the Chinese Navy’s (PLAN’s) Huangdicun naval air station.

Design and Configuration

Before examining the plausibility, logic, and role of the 076 and its airwing, it is first instructive to review the current body of understanding for the 076’s general characteristics. Many of these are taken from the rare 076 class request for proposal documents found by online sleuths.

The propulsion of the 076 will include 21 megawatt gas turbines and diesel engines, as well as a medium voltage direct current integrated power system. It is unclear if the overall ship will feature an integrated propulsion system or a hybrid diesel-electric or gas-electric system. Either way, this system is considered to be somewhat mature and is expected aboard the 054B frigate as well as the eventual 055A class succeeding the 055 destroyer.

A floodable well deck is also explicitly described, enabling the deployment of vehicles and amphibious craft from ship to land. A well deck is one of the cardinal features expected for a ship with an amphibious assault mission, and its inclusion aboard the 076 points to it still deserving the classic “LHD” designation. Furthermore, credible insiders have spoken of the 076 still as an “amphibious assault ship” like 075.

The aforementioned EMCAT and the arresting gear are the most noteworthy subsystems relevant to flight operations. However, other subsystems documented include a munitions elevator and a flight deck elevator capable of supporting a weight of 30 tons. Also mentioned is a “UAV deck.”

LHD First or Carrier First?

The immediate area of contention for the 076 LHD is whether its fixed wing capability should be secondary to its function as an amphibious assault ship or if it should be primarily be considered a medium aircraft carrier. Similar debates exist for other navies as well, such as the USN, whose LHDs can function as medium aircraft carriers when operating large complements of VSTOL jets like F-35Bs or Harriers.

However, there are also key differences between an LHD and a proper carrier. The flight deck geometry and area of an aircraft carrier are typically far greater than those of an equivalently sized LHD, and feature greater reinforcement and arrested recovery gear as well. Most international LHD designs in the world conversely do not have their flight decks extend significantly beyond the hull width, whereas a carrier’s flight deck does. Larger flight deck area and “carrier” flight deck geometry enables more efficient and higher tempo fixed wing flight operations. The presence of an angled flight deck aboard aircraft carriers is one of the more obvious examples of this.

Aircraft carriers typically require greater top speeds than LHDs, in turn requiring more powerful prime movers. Finally, an LHD is designed with capacity to carry vehicles and accommodating a floodable well deck for the mission of amphibious assault – roles that carriers do not fulfill. At this stage, it is not known whether the 076 will have an angled flight deck; however the emphasis on its primary LHD role suggests the flight deck will also have more similarities with an LHD than a true aircraft carrier.

Therefore, the current body of evidence suggests the 076 will be an LHD first, and a CATOBAR carrier second, with its CATOBAR provisions seeking to provide fixed wing aerial capabilities to enable the 076 to carry out its amphibious assault role. The 076 might still be capable of fielding an airwing made up of a large fixed wing aerial complement, but may lack the flight deck area to operate as efficiently as a true medium aircraft carrier.

Why Not VSTOL?

The 076 at present is best thought of as an LHD with catapults and arresting gear to enable CATOBAR fixed wing flight operations. One might then ask why the PLAN would seek to integrate these subsystems onto an LHD to operate fixed wing flight aircraft, rather than going the route of the USN and developing a VSTOL fighter such as the F-35B.

Indeed, one might be forgiven for thinking that developing a VSTOL fighter is the most sensible and easiest route to provide LHD sized ships with a fixed wing capability. However, the development of a new VSTOL combat aircraft is far from fast or inexpensive, and given the Chinese aerospace industry has never developed a VSTOL combat aircraft in the past, this would represent a significant undertaking. Indeed, while the Chinese aerospace industry has conducted pre-research into VSTOL, the path to develop a viable VSTOL combat aircraft would be long and costly and fraught with risk and delay.

Furthermore, any VSTOL capable “combat aircraft” must also be sufficiently capable and survivable in the relevant threat environment. For the modern threat environment into the 2020s and decades beyond, such an aircraft would inevitably require a high level of stealth and capable sensors and weapons. Developing a fifth generation strike fighter is within the Chinese aerospace industry’s capability; developing such an aircraft that is also VSTOL capable is something else entirely. Not to mention, such an aircraft would require a sufficiently high performance turbofan to enable VSTOL operations for a large strike fighter with relevant payload, range, and stealth in the first place.

The procurement potential for a dedicated VSTOL fighter is also somewhat limited. Even generously assuming the PLAN eventually pursues a fleet of 10 LHD ships similar to the Wasp or America class capable of operating a hypothetical VSTOL fighter, the total number of VSTOL fighters needed to outfit 10 such ships would number less than 200. Devoting time, expertise, funds and industry to the development of such a unique aircraft with such a relatively limited production run would not make sense, unless other branches in the PLA also procured this aircraft or if China designed this aircraft with export in mind.

A Drone First Airwing

The consensus surrounding the 076’s fixed wing complement settled fairly quickly onto UCAVs and UAVs, and a number of pieces subsequently written by Chinese language insiders with established track records further reinforced this idea.

A navalized, stealthy, flying wing UCAV is expected to provide the 076 with its primary fixed wing strike and high intensity surveillance capability, far beyond what could be provided with helicopters. The exact capability of this UCAV will depend on its size; however, any aircraft between the size of a navalized GJ-11 or something larger like the U.S. Navy’s X-47B demonstrator would provide a very credible stealthy strike capability relevant for high intensity conflict scenarios.

Such an aircraft will certainly be inferior to F-35Bs in the air-to-air role, barring some significant advancement in UAV autonomy. However, flying wing UCAVs by virtue of their planform and configuration may have the potential to offer better radar signature reduction compared to contemporary fifth generation fighter planforms. Flying wing UCAVs could also offer competitive or superior range for strike missions, as well as superior time on station and endurance, compared to a medium weight fifth generation manned fighter such as F-35B.

The other type of UAV that the 076 is likely to field would be a more conventional long endurance UAV, such as a variation of the jet powered Wind/Cloud Shadow drone, which adopts a proven platform similar to that of aircraft like Global Hawk, and is thought to have a carrier compatible variant in advanced development. A UAV such as this would likely fulfill a complementary, lower end, long endurance surveillance and datalinking role for the overall task force, and be expected to operate in more permissive environments than a flying wing UCAV.

The unmanned nature of UCAVs and UAVs may also mitigate certain disadvantages of operating fixed wing aircraft aboard an LHD sized ship with a suboptimal flight deck. For example, the longer endurance of unmanned aircraft may reduce the need for higher tempo flight operations and sortie rates that manned aircraft could demand, which an LHD would be incapable of executing in the first place. Furthermore, unmanned aircraft tend to be able to attain greater endurance and range than equivalent weight fifth generation manned fighters as a reflection of their different competing requirements; after all, a flying wing UCAV does not need to sustain a pilot, or be capable of sustaining high Gs, nor is it required to attain supersonic speeds.

In other words, a UCAV with competitive and relevant combat radii, endurance, and payload could enjoy a significantly lighter weight compared to a manned fifth generation fighter, reducing the rating (and thus potentially size and power consumption) of the 076’s EM catapult and arresting gear. For example, a full sized aircraft carrier may be required to launch fully loaded, 30-plus ton manned combat aircraft; however, the 076’s catapults may be less powerful and only capable of launching aircraft up to 20 tons because the ship’s UCAV and UAV airwing will not exceed that weight to begin with.

Finally, a fleet of carrier-borne UCAVs and UAVs would be capable of operating from both 076s as well as future catapult aircraft carriers (003 and onwards). This opens up the potential for a larger production run and cross deck operations and flexibility as well.

A Waiting Game

With the current base of understanding, the 076 is best seen as an LHD capable of fielding a fixed wing high end strike and ISR capability enabled by an unmanned airwing, catapults, and arresting gear. It is not known how many catapults 076 will field, or what its flight deck will look like (such as whether it will include an angled flight deck), nor is it known exactly when construction of the first 076 can be expected or how many 076s will be procured. These are important characteristics that will only be established over time.

One of the most controversial questions surrounding the 076 is whether it will be capable of operating the manned aircraft that the PLAN’s future large deck CATOBAR carriers will field, such as the future FC-31 derived carrier-borne fighter. The expected relatively small size and limited geometry of the 076’s flight deck makes it unlikely the ship will routinely operate manned fixed wing aircraft, and the likely downrated catapults and arresting gear means it will be unable to launch and recover manned aircraft at their maximum loads. However, in theory, the 076 could still launch and recover manned aircraft with reduced loads, and offer the option to operate a limited number of manned aircraft in an ad hoc capacity if a specific mission requires it.

Therefore, the current vision of the 076 represents a markedly different way of providing an LHD with fixed wing aviation capability compared to the U.S. Navy and other Western navies that operate F-35B or Harrier jump jets. Comparisons between the 076 and its Western contemporaries will likely be made in the future, as the 076 emerges as a more visible and concrete project; however, it is valuable early on to recognize that the 076’s airwing will not be designed to fulfill the same variety of air-to-air, strike, and ISR missions in the same supersonic capable package that F-35B is. Instead, the 076’s UCAV and UAV aircraft will likely emphasize longer endurance and longer range strike and ISR missions instead. The value of the two approaches can only be assessed in context of each navy’s own respective naval aviation and amphibious assault strategy.