During the last few days, a series of photographs corresponding to what could be the new drone carrier of the People’s Liberation Army Navy of China have gone viral. The news, revealed by the specialized site Naval News, gains relevance since, despite the start of its construction being known in 2022, it has not been officially announced by the Ministry of Defense of the Asian Giant, unlike other naval construction programs of importance.

It is not news to say that the widespread use of various types of unmanned aerial vehicles is already the present for any military force. However, in the naval field, there is still a need for the development of specialized units for the deployment at sea and from the sea of drones. The closest thing is the formation of Embarked Air Groups on conventional aircraft carriers and Type LHD amphibious assault ships, which, however, still mostly possess manned aircraft. Several navies, such as those of Turkey and the United Kingdom, are already foreseeing an increasingly widespread use of UAVs from their capital ships, seeking to have dedicated facilities for their maintenance, sustainment, and deployment at sea.

In the Asia-Pacific area, several navies are venturing into conceptual designs of mothership vessels for the deployment of embarked drones, which could receive, in the absence of more specifics, the term “drone carriers.” The People’s Liberation Army Navy of China, given its plans for projection and expansion of units and capabilities, is one of those closest to having this type of vessel in the near future.

Following the images disseminated by Naval News, which show this new drone carrier at the Jiangsu Dayang Marine shipyard on the Yangtze River, located in Shanghai, they depict an almost overhead image of the vessel. The image allows us to appreciate the differences that this class of units would have compared to aircraft carriers, presenting a rectangular design with a flight deck that would represent only 1/3 compared to the aforementioned capital ships. By way of comparison, this vessel could have dimensions and displacement more akin to the former escort carriers of World War II.

As of today, no further details or official designation of the vessel are known. The only thing that is known is that its construction began in 2022 with the utmost secrecy, only allowing hypotheses to be made about the composition of its Embarked Air Group, as well as the tasks and roles it would occupy within the Chinese Navy.

Experts, such as J. Michael Dahm, a researcher at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and professor of International Affairs at George Washington University, have speculated, based on previous work by the aforementioned shipyard, that one of the functions of the drone carrier could be to simulate Western ships during naval exercises.

Another possibility regarding the ship’s design is that it could be used as a platform near the coasts for the deployment of drones, thus relegating projection capabilities more typical of an aircraft carrier, acting more like the Expeditionary Maritime Bases of the United States Navy. To date, without further data and announcements, only speculations can be formulated.

*Cover photo used for illustrative purposes.

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