Does this satellite image of a facility outside Shanghai provide evidence that China is trying to developing catapults for its next generation of aircraft carriers?
The image shows what may be a catapult test track similar to those used by the U.S. Navy at its Lakehurst New Jersey research site. Killer Apps spotted the picture above posted on numerous defense forums while researching a different story about old Soviet aircraft carriers.
Keep in mind that China is reported to be working on two to three new carriers that some speculate may be based on the design for what would have been the Soviet Union's first catapult-equipped carrier -- the Ulanovsk. (Others claim the new ships will be based on China's first carrier, the Liaoning, a ship that used to be the Soviet ship, Varyag.)
Remember the Liaoning uses a ramp on its bow -- dubbed a ski jump -- to help fighters get airborne in a short amount of space. This design has obvious drawbacks since only a relatively small fraction of aircraft have the power-to-weight ratio necessary to perform such a take-off.
The Ulanovsk was scrapped in 1992 when it was only 20 percent complete, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Ulanovsk's design called for two catapults that could launch heavily-laden fighters, attack planes, and larger aircraft such as prop-driven radar planes similar to the U.S Navy's E-2 Hawkeye.
These satellite images might be of a short version of a high-speed test track, however, similar to the ones the U.S. Air Force has in New Mexico and California, not a prototype catapult. Although, the Chinese facility seems much shorter in length than the Air Force's test tracks that are used for much crazier things than launching 20-ton aircraft from ships. Furthermore, it would make some sense for China to develop a catapult system for its future carriers, especially because it appears to be developing its own version of the Hawkeye. Planes of that size require catapults to take off from carriers.
Rumors abound that China is working on developing both a traditional steam-powered catapult and an electromagnetic system -- similar to the one the United States is developing, called EMALS -- for its next generation of carriers. Electromagnetic catapults are supposed to be easier to maintain and take up far less space than steam powered catapults.
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.