China's third aircraft carrier heads to sea for the first time

With this third flattop on the way, China's aircraft carrier fleet will be the second largest in the world, trailing only the USA with its eleven active carriers.

ANI | Updated: 15-05-2024 11:22 IST | Created: 15-05-2024 11:22 IST
China's third aircraft carrier heads to sea for the first time
China's third aircraft carrier, Fujian (Photo/X @SpokespersonCHN) . Image Credit: ANI
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China's third aircraft carrier, christened Fujian after the name of the Mainland Chinese province that sits opposite Taiwan, represents a marked technological leap forward compared to the first two carriers of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Much larger in size, and fitted with several catapults rather than the ski jump ramp found on the in-service 60,000-tonne-class Liaoning and Shandong carriers - which were commissioned in 2012 and 2019 respectively - this newest Type 003 carrier will be able to operate a larger and more capable fleet of shipborne aircraft.

With this third flattop on the way, China's aircraft carrier fleet will be the second largest in the world, trailing only the USA with its eleven active carriers. The pending arrival of a third carrier also raises the question of just how many of these prestigious vessels China needs or plans to field. Collin Koh, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told ANI: "Past reports, not all substantiated, put Chinese intentions to build at least six carriers, and perhaps up to eight."

The Singaporean academic added, "Until the PLAN reaches a level of maturity with carrier operations, which are complex, and obviously it's still a newbie compared to the more seasoned US Navy, it's likely going to aim for six carriers." Such a number would permit two carriers to be at sea at any one time, with the four others in various stages of maintenance or work-up periods.

Fujian was constructed by the government-owned Jiangnan Shipyard, a subsidiary of the China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC), on Changxing Island in the mouth of the Yangtze River near the city of Shanghai. Her construction reportedly began in March 2017, and assembled blocks were moved to a dry dock in May 2020. The vessel was then launched on 17 June 2022, the milestone likely experiencing delays brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly a year later, Fujian finally conducted her first voyage earlier this month.

On 29 April, tugboats towed Fujian from her fitting-out basin to a Yangtze River berth in Shanghai. Two days later, on 1 May, the ship steamed off on her first sea trial. At the time, the state-run Xinhua news outlet reported, "The sea trials will primarily test the reliability and stability of the aircraft carrier's propulsion and electrical systems." The news agency added that Fujian had already "completed mooring trials, outfitting work and equipment adjustments" during the previous two years. It is known that catapult tests occurred in November 2023, one of the many steps needed for the vessel to have "met the technical requirements for sea trials," as explained by Xinhua.

A safety notice issued by the China Maritime Safety Administration, which covered a zone 130km from Shanghai from 1-9 May, revealed the direction and duration of the carrier's maiden voyage. Indeed, the carrier returned to Jiangnan Shipyard on the afternoon of 8 May, concluding her eight-day journey. State media reported, "During the sea trial, the aircraft carrier tested its propulsion and electrical systems and other equipment, and achieved the expected results. In the next stage, PLANS Fujian will conduct follow-up tests according to established plans."

This was just the first of a series of planned sea trials. The first carrier Liaoning performed ten sea trials and the second one Shandong underwent nine before each entered PLAN service, so it is unlikely that the larger and more sophisticated Fujian will require fewer seagoing trials than this. One technological leap forward for China's third carrier is the installation of an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS). The only other carrier type in the world to feature this technology is the US Navy's newest Gerald R Ford class.

In moving to EMALS, away from the old Soviet style of ski jump ramp, China completely bypassed steam-powered catapults of the type that the US Navy has traditionally used. In its most recent annual report on China's military, the Pentagon noted that EMALS "will enable [the carrier] to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early warning aircraft and more rapid flight operations, and thus extend the reach and effectiveness of its carrier-based strike aircraft".

Fujian, with a displacement presumed to be in excess of 80,000 tonnes, could eventually be commissioned into the PLAN in around 2026. This is based on an 18-month gap between the maiden sea trial and the commissioning of China's second carrier Shandong. Fujian might even take longer than this 1.5-year period thanks to new equipment and technologies - such as her complex catapult - that need to be thoroughly tested first.

Analysts estimate the new vessel to be approximately 316m long, while her flight deck has an average width of 72m. This gives her a size similar to the US Navy's now-retired Kitty Hawk-class carriers. Propelled by what is likely combined gas and diesel drive/integrated electric propulsion, the large ship is expected to require at least 2,000 sailors and 1,000 aircrews to operate. Photos of the new carrier during her sea trial gave a clearer idea of her configuration. There are two aircraft elevators, used for moving aircraft to and from the hangar bay and flight deck, on the starboard side.

The EMALS system features three catapults (two on the bow and one on the waist) plus four arrestor cables to catch landing aircraft. The flight deck also has five helicopter landing spots marked out. There is a single pyramidal-shaped island superstructure on the starboard side just aft of the ship's centre point. Atop this island are integrated radars (including panels for the main active electronically scanned array radar) and other sensors, with the shape designed to reduce the ship's own radar cross-section. The ship funnel is also integrated into the island. Near each of the ship's four corners are H/PJ-11 30mm close-in weapon systems, plus HQ-10 short-range air defence missiles. Such weapons provide a last-ditch defensive layer, although, of course, it is the job of accompanying destroyers, frigates and submarines to guarantee the ultimate protection of this high-value asset.

Additionally, there are centrally located areas on the port and starboard sides that could potentially accommodate acoustic or directed-energy weapons. It is unknown where Fujian will be based after entering service, but the presence of a massive dry dock in Sanya on Hainan Island suggests she could be assigned to the Southern Theater Navy. This is also the homeport of the Type 002 carrier Shandong, whereas Liaoning is stationed at Yuchi Naval Base in Qingdao, Shandong in the north. Incidentally, Liaoning recently emerged from a yearlong refit that started in February 2023, and Shandong has been at her Sanya home port since last December. As Fujian prepares to enter service, the PLAN has a lot of personnel to raise and train. In fact, Koh highlighted constraints that the PLAN faces in forming its carrier fleet.

"It might be able to build the carriers, escorts and fleet replenishment ships, for example, but the service still faces manpower constraints. It is not just in the area of carrier-borne aviators, but also technically competent crew - especially glaring being the petty officers corps - who will have to man the carriers." The analyst from Singapore suggested that such factors will "be a major inhibitor against a rapid, drastic build-up of the carrier force in the short term". Interestingly, the PLAN began recruiting female pilots last year - which is one way to expand the pool of potential naval aviation pilots - and this first batch of female aviators performed their maiden solo flights on 25 April 2024.

As alluded to earlier, Fujian will be able to carry aircraft that neither of the first two Chinese carriers can, due to limitations inherent in their ski ramp design. Fujian's size suggests she could carry 50-60 aircraft and, while the make-up of its air group remains notional, Chinese aerospace companies have been busily developing new-type aircraft. One is the J-35 stealth fighter, which will complement the J-15 fighter already flying from the first two carriers. The J-15B is a version modified for catapult launches. There is also the J-15D electronic warfare variant, which performs the same role as the US Navy's EA-18G Growler.

Another new aircraft that will fly from Fujian is the KJ-600 airborne early warning aircraft. Still in development, this is a Chinese carbon copy of the E-2 Hawkeye used by the US Navy. Such aircraft are vital in extending the eyes and ears of a carrier task force, as their large radar antenna atop the aircraft can see long distances when it is airborne. The KJ-600 will never be able to operate from a ski jump-equipped carrier, as the heavy aircraft needs a catapult to get it off a flight deck. Helicopters - both the Z-20 (a copy of the American Black Hawk/Seahawk) and the Z-8 series - will also be mainstay platforms for anti-submarine warfare, transport, utility, and search and rescue missions. Another possible aircraft to become carrier-borne is the JL-10 advanced jet trainer. A mock-up of a JL-10 has previously appeared on Fujian's flight deck, which fueled speculation that China might be developing a carrier-capable JL-10 version.

At the National People's Congress in March, Admiral Yuan Huazhi, Political Commissar of the PLAN, told reporters that China's next Type 004 carrier would "soon be announced". He added that there were no technical bottlenecks in its construction. Significantly, that was Beijing's first official confirmation it was building yet another carrier. However, so far no imagery has appeared showing such a vessel under construction. The Type 004 will naturally use EMALS too, but the other most pertinent point is whether the ship will be nuclear or conventionally powered.

All American carriers employ a nuclear power plant, whereas Chinese ones to date use conventional propulsion. It remains unknown whether China will next add another vessel identical to the Type 003, or will push technological boundaries even further and opt for nuclear propulsion on the Type 004. Admiral Yuan also said, "We are building aircraft carriers to protect our national sovereignty and to protect our territorial integrity." And yet four aircraft carriers for a country that has a coastline of around 14,500km is a force that goes well beyond "protecting territorial integrity".

Indeed, it better reflects China's pursuit of a blue-water navy, one that can sail oceans anywhere in the world and project Chinese military power. Once the Type 003 enters service, China will have the third-largest carrier in the world. Only the USA's Nimitz-class and Ford-class supercarriers, which displace around 100,000 tonnes and carry 70-80 aircraft, will surpass her in size. The next largest carrier in service today is the UK's two Queen Elizabeth vessels in the 70,000-tonne class. Certainly, Fujian will eclipse the displacement of India's two carriers, which are also inhibited in operational capacity by their ski ramp design.

China already has the world's largest navy, with some 370 vessels, whereas the US Navy is declining in terms of hull numbers. Instead of achieving its 355-vessel target, the US Navy will have just 287 ships in its fleet by FY2025, a figure that will drop further to 280 in FY2027. The USA must also split its numbers across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, whereas China can concentrate its fleet. As China fields increasingly sophisticated and ever-growing quantities of ships, the traditional Western Pacific dominance of the US Navy over the past 75 or so years no longer holds true. With at least three carriers at its disposal, the PLAN will be able to roam even farther afield and take its own aircraft wherever it goes too. (ANI)

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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