Is this the prototype for China’s first aircraft carrier catapult?

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 ...

Chinese Internet
Chinese Internet
Chinese Internet

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.

(Click here to see the facility on Bing Maps. Click here to see the site compared to the U.S Navy's test catapults.)

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.

(Click here to see the facility on Bing Maps. Click here to see the site compared to the U.S Navy’s test catapults.)

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 is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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