A Chinese shipbuilder is planning to build a more powerful amphibious assault ship that would be able to carry more helicopters and drones and help the country's marine corps to fight more effectively on the high seas.
The ship would have a similar design to the Type 075 landing helicopter deck, but it would be equipped with an electromagnetic catapult launch system of the type that is currently only found on the most advanced aircraft carriers.
News about the proposal of the new design, which shipbuilders and military enthusiasts have called the Type 076, has been circulating on military websites since the start of the month.
Military observers said the plans, from the China Shipbuilding Group, the main government contractor, have not yet been approved by the leadership and work on the new ships will take at least five years.
One naval commentator, Li Jie, said the ship would not be designed with a possible attack on Taiwan in mind, instead its "combat role would focus on the high seas when China is facing territorial challenges from rival claimants in the region".
China is involved in a series of territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas and the US has stepped up its presence in the area in recent years.
The new ship would be a similar size to the Type 075, but it is expected to include the most advanced type of electromagnetic launch system – technology that will be used on China's next generation Type 002 carrier, which is still under construction.
The new design will allow it to carry more helicopters, rotor-wing drones and hovercraft, according to military analysts.
A report in the Chinese military magazine Ordnance Industry Science Technology last Thursday said this would allow the marine corps to expand its combat range and air defences over a wider area.
The warship would have an estimated displacement of about 40,000 tonnes and will be China's largest – and the world's third largest – amphibious assault ship, behind the US Wasp-class and America class.
It will be able to carry up to 30 helicopters, as well as a number of amphibious tanks, armoured vehicles, boats, and hundreds of marine troops for land attacks and follow-up ground operations.
China launched its second Type 075 LHD three months ago, but the ships have yet to enter service.
Ordnance Industry Science Technology said that the new ship would play a role like a mini aircraft carrier to strengthen the marines' ability to attack ships and land-based targets from the high seas.
The development of its marine force comes amid China's ongoing efforts to strengthen its military, which has also seen it launch five amphibious assault ships using an older design, the Type 071, since 2016.
Li said the plan to integrate the electromagnetic catapult technology with the design of the Type 075 faced a number of technological challenges, including modifications to the hull and flight deck.
"Only when the new Type 002 aircraft carrier finishes testing the three electromagnetic catapult can we make sure it's a mature technology that could be applied on the flight deck of the Type 075.
"Indeed, the full development of the Type 076 will only be finalised when China successfully develops the first stealth carrier-based fighter jet, as well as other variants of stealth drones."
The first Type 002 aircraft carrier is expected to be launched next year.
Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming described the design of the Type 076 as innovative because it would be the first time an electromagnetic catapult was used on an amphibious assault vehicle.
"Unlike aircraft carriers that can focus on sea and air defence and combats, the amphibious ships also need to take care of battles on land," Zhou said.
"How to operate the electromagnetic catapult technology, as well as the need for combat on sea, air and land, makes this a complicated and challenging job."
- South China Morning Post