The Complex

Is China working on a nuclear reactor for aircraft carriers?

China may have kicked off a research program aimed at developing nuclear reactors to power its future aircraft carriers.

A report posted on the website of the state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) on Feb. 19 stated that the Ministry of Science and Technology has formally kicked off an effort to develop nuclear power plants for ships. Interestingly, that post has been taken down after it was viewed 682 times.

Luckily for us, a cached version of the page can still be seen here. This is a (very) rough translation of the key sentence on the site:

The Ministry of Science and Technology's nuclear power shipping critical technology and safety research Project 863 and small-scale nuclear reactor generation technology and its application demonstration supporting technology project has formally been set up.

While the report doesn't say anything about aircraft carriers, CSIC is the firm that turned the hulk of the former Soviet ship Varyag into the Chinese navy's first carrier, the Liaoning. China is supposedly working to field at least two more carriers in the next decade.

It should be noted that China already has a fleet of nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines. This article in the South China Morning Post, which first reported the new reactor program, points out that building a nuclear carrier may be the next logical step for the Chinese navy. Still, Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation studies downplayed the significance of the new program, saying that Chinese engineers could simply put larger versions of their existing submarine reactors into carriers.

"They might wish to make [the reactor] more powerful, but that's easy as they don't have to shoehorn it into a submarine," Lewis told Killer Apps.

All of the U.S. Navy's aircraft carriers and submarines are nuclear powered. The key advantage of nuclear powered ships is that they don't have to refuel nearly as often as conventionally fueled vessels -- think decades rather than months. (On a side note, naval nuclear reactors tend to use highly enriched uranium, the same stuff that's key to making nuclear weapons.)

China's planed homemade carriers are said to be based on the Liaoning's design and will incorporate lessons learned from operating the "starter carrier," as she has been called. Media reports have suggested that the first two locally built carriers will be conventionally-powered and enter service around 2015, with a third nuclear-powered vessel possibly entering service around 2020.

The Liaoning was launched in Ukraine as the Varyag in 1988, but construction ceased by 1992 due to the fall of the Soviet Union. She sat in a Ukrainian shipyard for a decade, eventually gutted of engines, electrical systems, and combat equipment. China bought the hulk from Ukraine in 1999, saying that it planned on turning the ship into a casino. In 2002, the Varyag was towed from the Black Sea to China and was refitted. In 2011, she put to sea under her own power for the first time. Last November, Chinese fighters made their first landings and takeoffs from the Liaoning's deck. So much for that casino.

Chinese Internet

National Security

Pic of the week: Italy's Hammerhead UAV

This beast is your pic of the week. You're looking at Italy's newest UAV, the Piaggio P.1HH Hammerhead. Besides looking like an actual shark, this plane is interesting because it represents a trend that's been underway for several years: turning manned aircraft into unmanned drones capable of doing everything from spy missions to cargo runs in Afghanistan. That's right, the Hammerhead is basically one of Piaggio's distinctive P.180 Avanti business planes.

Of course, the inside has been gutted and the cockpit and creature comforts have been replaced with equipment allowing the plane to be flown remotely. There is also space for all sorts of spy gear, which could include everything from infrared cameras to equipment for intercepting enemy communications or collecting information on radar systems.

Manned aircraft have been converted into drones for decades. B-17s were turned into guided missiles in World War II, and more recently F-16 Vipers have been converted into target drones.  The U.S. Navy's latest version of its Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, the MQ-8C Fire-X, is based on the manned Bell 407 civilian chopper. Lockheed's K-MAX, based on a manned chopper of the same name, is delivering cargo to Marines in Afghanistan. (On a related note, the Air Force's planned fleet of 80 to 100 new stealth bombers will be "optionally manned" to keep pilots out of harm's way when possible.)

Turning manned aircraft designs into drones makes a lot of sense. Why spend money and time to design a brand new aircraft when you can simply convert an existing one?

Here are the basics on the plane from a Piaggio Arero press release, (and yes, Piaggio Aero traces its roots to Piaggio, the company that makes Vespa scooters.):

After two years of development, the P.1HH "HammerHead" UAV has been rolled out and it successfully completed its first engine start and run way taxi on 14th February at an Italian Air Force base. The Piaggio Aero P.1HH - UAS first flight is scheduled for this year following the completion of the Vehicle Control & Management System integration and the ground test programme.

The Piaggio Aero P.1HH aircraft features automatic take-off and landing capabilities and is able to fly at up to 45,000 feet, with an outstanding endurance of 16 flight hours. The Piaggio Aero P.1HH "Hammer Head" UAV will also be compliant with the STANAG USAR 4671 standards that enable it to fly both in restricted and unrestricted flight areas.

Like the Piaggio Aero MPA - Multirole Patrol Aircraft - presented in July 2012, the Piaggio Aero P.1HH "HammerHead" unmanned aircraft - part of the P.1HH Unmanned Aerial System - is a derivative of the Piaggio Aero P.180 Avanti II platform newly designed for multi mission purposes such as aerial, land, coastal, maritime and offshore security, COMINT/ELINT missions, and electronic warfare.

The P.1HH "HammerHead" unmanned aircraft's main features are an enhanced airframe, increased aerodynamic configuration with a reinforced wing providing an increased surface and higher aspect ratio. The aerodynamic configuration is based on the development of new wings providing a 15,5 m wing span with the subsequent modification of the previous P.180 aerodynamic design but maintaining Piaggio Aero's patented 3 lifting surfaces configuration now employed in roles and applications that the Piaggio Aero's P.180 designers only envisioned.

The P.1HH "HammerHead" aircraft features a removable external section wing in order to guarantee easy ground transportation and provide operational flexibility in any environment. This modified aerodynamic configuration underwent extensive low speed/high speed wind tunnel testing to validate both its design and performance.

The P.1HH "HammerHead" aircraft will be remotlycontrolled from a autonomous mission control ground station (GCS) by both a Line Of Sight (LOS) and Beyond Line Of Sight (BLOS) satellite communication system. The Piaggio Aero UAS features a state of the art Vehicle Control & Management System (VCMS) combined with a sophisticated Air Data Terminal (ADT) and a customised Mission Management System (MMS) for the control of all mission specific equipment.

Piaggio Aero