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HomeDEFENCEFujian China’s third aircraft carrier - a new threat to India

Fujian China’s third aircraft carrier – a new threat to India

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Fujian China’s third aircraft carrier - a new threat to India

China recently completed the 8-day maiden sea trial of 80,000 ton Fujian – its third aircraft carrier. According to China Military Online, the English language news website of the People’s Liberation Army, the aircraft carrier tested its propulsion, electrical systems, and other equipment, and achieved the expected results during the sea trial. China is now aiming to build its fourth and this time a nuclear-powered super-carrier. With these remarkable developments in terms of the ability of power projection through sheer firepower in the floating platforms, it is clear that China is well on its way to become a true Blue Water Navy in competition with the USA. India and other countries in the region will have to watch the developments very closely in national interest.

Previous Two Aircraft Carriers

Liaoning (60,900 tons) was started in the Soviet Union but the USSR collapsed before it could be finished. The unfinished hull was bought in 1998 by a Hong Kong businessman apparently for making a floating casino, but he transferred it to the People’s Liberation Army Navy, which commissioned it in 2012 as an aircraft carrier. That, in itself, was a remarkable achievement. They built their second carrier Shandong (66,000 tons) from the scratch in just six years and commissioned it in 2019—a tremendous pace of construction.

Both of them use ski-jump technology as both the Indian aircraft carriers also do. It is called STOBAR or ‘short take-off, barrier-arrested recovery’ system. A ski-jump ramp is an upward-curved ramp at the end of the flight deck, typically making an angle of 7 to 12 degrees. They are simpler and cheaper to make. However, the system is suitable only for lighter aircrafts. If you have to launch heavier aircrafts, they have to cut down on their fuel or munitions and that negatively impacts mission scope significantly.

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For launching heavier aircrafts, you need catapults. They are known as CATOBAR or ‘catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery’ systems. Presently, all but one US aircraft carriers use steam catapults, which are extremely complex in design that remains a military secret. The catapult mechanism, as the name suggests, actually picks up the aircraft by its nose wheel and flings it off the carrier.

China’s Third Aircraft Carrier, the Fujian

Launched in June 2022, this was built from the scratch in about six years, despite being much bigger. According to Dr. Robert Farley professor at University of Kentucky and the US Army War College, this is the largest and most advanced aircraft carrier ever built outside the United States.

Pic: AP

According to Global Times, Fujian will operate not only improved versions of the J-15 fighter jet but also new aircraft including the next-generation stealth fighter jet J-35, and the fixed-wing early warning aircraft the KJ-600.

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Fujian uses a system more advanced than steam catapults. It uses an electromagnetic aircraft launch system similar to the American EMALS system they have for their latest Gerald R. Ford-class carrier. It uses strong magnetic fields and electricity to launch aircraft—basically by a linear induction motor or electromagnetic rail gun. It is more compact than steam catapults, taking up less internal volume in the ship, and provides a smoother, less jarring ride for pilots. It can also more easily adjust power levels to launch smaller, lighter aircraft such as drones. It is also faster to reload and can launch 33% more sorties in a day.

Electromagnetic catapults consume enormous amount of electrical power, as much as 100 million watts of electricity, about as much as a small town uses in the same amount of time. Imagine the ship producing that much power for this alone!

The Fourth, Nuclear Powered Aircraft Career Being Built

A Chinese admiral has confirmed that China is constructing its fourth aircraft carrier and it should be operational before the end of this decade. Presently known as Type 004, this will be China’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, heralding a major milestone in ship-building technology and also a key towards power projection. Nuclear-powered vessels, as you know, have practically unlimited range requiring only food and munitions to be brought to it to conduct combat operations indefinitely.

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The significance of making a nuclear-powered ship of the size of an aircraft carrier can be appreciated from the fact that besides the USA, only France has been able to build one, the Charles de Gaulle, which is just a 42,500 tons ship. Even the Royal Navy (yes, for which the British Empire has been singing ‘Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves’ since 1745) has not been able to build one.     

The Type 004 is likely to carry a complement of J-15 and J-31/J-35 fighters, Xian KJ-600 airborne early warning and control aircraft, anti-submarine warfare aircraft, and stealth attack drones. In all, it would have 70 to 100 fixed wing aircrafts and helicopters.

China Going to Become a True Blue Water Navy

The PLA Navy had dropped the insulting appellation of a ‘Coastal Defence Navy’, which would stay confined within its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) long ago. With its two aircraft carriers and seven SSBNs (nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines: one Type 092 and six Type 094), it was a ‘Multi-Regional Power Projection Navy’. Now, with its third 80,000 ton carrier, it is close to becoming a Blue Water Navy. The status would be sealed with its fourth, Type 004 nuclear powered super-carrier (at 110,000 tons being bigger than US Navy’s Nimitz class carriers of 106,300 tons) being built.

By all logic, China will build more nuclear carriers because not all ships are available at a time; for every one ship at sea, another has just returned from sea, and a third is either in dry dock or preparing to sail. If they want to match the US Pacific Fleet, ship-by-ship, they will require seven nuclear carriers to match the USS Nimitz, Vinson, Roosevelt, Lincoln, Washington, Stennis, and Reagan.

What Gives a Nation Real Naval Power?

The overall naval capability of a nation is determined by several interrelated factors, among which technology is only one. Other factors include logistics, training, maritime strategy, regular exercise experience, and, last but not the least, the existence of an indigenous industrial base with the capability of providing maintenance and repairs, refits, and the new building of vessels for sustaining the operational status of the fleet. This is where China has a more promising future over us.

Sarah Kirchberger of the Center for Asia-Pacific Strategy and Security at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University (ISPK) also agrees that building a powerful navy is not accomplished by just introducing some more vessels into the fleet. The real challenge lies in integrating and sustaining these new systems in the existing fleet structure by providing the necessary logistics, maintenance, and training.

James R. Holmes (a former naval officer and senior research associate at the University of Georgia Center for International Trade and Security) and Toshi Yoshihara (John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the US Naval War College) specifically point out the significant technological advances of Chinese naval shipbuilding during the past few years.

Power Projection through Aircraft Carriers

Power projection (aka force projection) is the capacity of a nation to deploy and sustain forces with credible destructive power far from its territory. The ability to project its power far beyond one’s shores serves several purposes, such as offensive military operations abroad; acting as a powerful deterrent on hostile or unfriendly nations to make them ‘behave’; and as an effective diplomatic lever, influencing their decision-making processes. The aircraft carrier, being the largest, most powerful, and complex mobile military platforms is the most important instrument of power projection.

Nimitz-class aircraft carrier

The Nimitz class super-carriers of the US Navy carry 85-90 aircrafts each, and some 5,200 crew. The F/A-18E or F Super Hornets can project its power to a further range of 2,346 km from wherever it happens to be on the globe.

Given the fact that out of the world’s 21 operational aircraft carriers, the US Navy alone operates 11 and with all of them being nuclear-powered, the US Navy’s CBGs-Carrier Battle Groups (now also called CSG-Carrier Strike Group) have historically been the most potent power projection platforms in the world. They typically consist of one aircraft carrier, two nuclear powered cruisers, three guided-missile destroyers (or at times frigates), one nuclear fast attack submarine (SSN) and one fast combat support ship.

The carrier’s primary mission is air power projection through a diverse mix of offensive and defensive aircraft capable of carrying out intense and sustained combat operations against targets ashore and on the sea. The assets of the CBG maintain sophisticated combat systems for conducting local combat actions in defence of the carrier. The cruisers primarily perform air-warfare (AW) missions to protect the carrier and other ships from air threats. They are also equipped with missiles for surface-warfare (SUW), and Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System (LAMPS) helicopters for undersea-warfare (USW). Guided missile destroyers, besides their missiles, can also conduct AW, SUW and USW.  The fast combat support ship performs the functions of three old logistic ship types in one hull, namely, fleet oiler, ammunition ship, and refrigerated stores ship.

At present, China’s two aircraft carriers Liaoning (60,900 tons) and Shandong (66,000 tons) use Type 055 stealth guided missile destroyers (12,000 tons; for area air defence with anti-submarine warfare capability surpassing previous Chinese surface combatants) Type 052C (7,000 tons) or Type 052D (7,500 tons) destroyers for air defence, Type 054A frigates (3,963 tons) for anti-submarine and anti-ship warfare, one or two Type 093 nuclear attack submarines (6,096 tons), and one Type 901 supply ship.

Power projection is a business where the logic of ‘bigger is better’ applies emphatically. A bigger platform means you can carry more aircrafts and more munitions. Perhaps you might not know, a super-carrier holds firepower that equals that of the entire air forces of Third-World nations.

In comparison, India’s new carrier battle group centred on INS Vikramaditya (45,400 tons, formerly the Admiral Gorshkov of Soviet Union)  and INS Vikrant  (45,000 tons) reportedly consist of Kolkata class (7,400 tons) guided missile destroyers, Shivalik (6,200 tons) and Talwar-class (4,035 tons) guided missile frigates, Kamorta-class anti-submarine warfare corvettes and new tankers.

India Must Watch Out

PIC: U.S. Naval Institute

The US Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro told last year that China now has 13 shipyards building its warships and some of those can each produce more ships than the entire US warship-building industry. In view of the staggering speed at which China is building warships, many experts reckon that China can now build three warships in the time it takes the United States to field one.

It has been reported that last September, the Defence Procurement Board has approved the case for a second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-II); essentially, another of the type of Vikrant. The Defence Acquisition Council will take up its approval after the elections. The IAC-II will eventually replace Vikramaditya because it was made after repairs and upgrades of the Soviet era Admiral Gorshkov (commissioned in 1987) that had been lying decommissioned in 1996 itself, will be due to retire in some 15 years from now.  

Last week, Admiral John Aquilino of the Hawaii-based US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) revealed that in the three years he had been in command, China built more than 400 aircraft, 20 major warships, and doubled its missile inventory. In terms of sheer numbers, the PLA Navy is the biggest navy in the world, with more than 340 formally recognized warships. Obviously, this huge armada is not for the South China Sea alone through which 21% of all global trade passes and which China claims as its own.

Figures speak more clearly than anything else. Well, the writing is on the wall. We better watch out! To an intelligent nation, as for an intelligent person, mere hint should be enough. I need not say more.

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Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr. N. C. Asthana, IPS (Retd) is a former DGP of Kerala and ADG BSF/CRPF. Of the 51 books that he has authored, 20 are on terrorism, counter-terrorism, defense, strategic studies, military science, and internal security, etc. They have been reviewed at very high levels in the world and are regularly cited for authority in the research works at some of the most prestigious professional institutions of the world such as the US Army Command & General Staff College and Frunze Military Academy, Russia. The views expressed are his own.


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