China’s Aircraft Carriers: And Then There Were Three

China's third aircraft carrier, the Fujian, seen at its lannchng ceremony on June 17, 2022 a the Jiangnan military naval shipyard in Shanghai.

CHINA’S MOST ADVANCED aircraft carrier is now in the water following its launch ceremony at the Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai on June 17 (seen above).

The next step for the Fujian will be completing its fitting out and then sea trials before being commissioned into service alongside its sister carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong. Commissioning is expected next year, with operational deployment in 2024.

The Fujian is the PLA Navy’s first domestically designed and built carrier. With a displacement that state media describe as ‘more than 80,000 tonnes‘ but foreign analysts speculate may be closer to 100,000 tonnes, it is the largest warship built outside of the United States.

Designated a Type 003, the Fujian is immediately distinguishable from its two predecessors not just by its size — approaching twice the displacement of the other two, but also by its flat deck. Electromagnetic catapults will launch its aircraft, not the ‘ski jumps’ seen on the Liaoning and the Shandong.

Such CATOBAR systems are used by the US Navy’s Nimitz and Gerald R Ford-class carriers and allow aircraft to be launched with heavier payloads, whether weapons or fuel.

They also make it easier to launch aircraft with less take-off thrust and more weight than fighters, such as airborne early warning and control (AEWC) aircraft. The PLA-N currently has to use helicopters for AEWC duties.

The Fujian’s size also means it will be able to carry more aircraft and fuel than its sister carriers and thus deploy more fighting power for longer and further out to sea.

It will be equipped with an estimated 48-strong flight of ‘Flying Sharks’ (the carrier-borne version of the J-15 fighter jet) plus Harbin Z-20 helicopters. A complement of 48 fighters is considered the minimum necessary for combat.

The Fujian will also be able to accommodate two aircraft being developed for Type 003 carriers, although not without teething troubles, the larger J-35 fighter and the multi-role KJ-600 utility aircraft, one of whose roles will be AWEC duties. More than likely, the Fujian will also carry combat drones.

However, the PLA-N will still be short of matching the maritime airpower of the United States and its regional allies.

While it has not been announced which of the PLA-N’s three fleet commands the Fujian will join, the East Sea fleet is the only one lacking a carrier. The Liaoning serves in the Northern command and the Shandong in the Southern one. The East Sea fleet is based in Ningbo, not so far from Taiwan.

The Fujian is conventionally powered. China’s fourth carrier, currently under construction, will likely be nuclear-powered as part of plans to make the PLA-N a ‘blue-water’ navy able to operate ‘out of area’ in waters such as the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean by 2025.

Having three carriers is an important milestone towards that objective as the PLA-N will meet the conventional assumption that three is the minimum number of carriers a navy needs: one operational, one in port and one in maintenance.

However, it will need at least a second Type 003 before it can follow the modern naval doctrine of operating carrier battle fleets in coordinated or ‘networked’ pairs for greater combat efficiency.

Once the Fujian is operational, Beijing will have secured its coastal waters, but for now, it can only project force, not deploy it, beyond the first island chain.

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