• 09 August, 2022
Foreign Affairs. Geopolitics. National Security.
MENU

China’s New Aircraft Carrier Fujian: Hit or Miss

Cdr Sandeep Dhawan (Retd) Sat, 25 Jun 2022   |  Reading Time: 6 minutes

While the United States was wrapping up its Valiant Shield 2022 exercise on 17 June, China launched its third aircraft carrier with all the fanfare. The launch was postponed twice due to logistical and technical issues. The aircraft carrier has been named Fujian with the hull number 18. It has been under construction at the world’s largest commercial shipbuilder, Jiangnan Shipyard, Shanghai, since 2018, though the initial work started in 2015.

The name Fujian shows the intent of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Fujian is the closest Chinese province to Taiwan, separated by the Taiwan Strait. It is the third Chinese aircraft carrier since China jumped into the fray in 2012. Once fully operational, Fujian would surely enhance Chinese capacity, but would it improve the capabilities? With three carrier strike groups (CSG), would PLAN challenge all the U.S. CSG in the Indo-Pacific? How is this going to affect India?

A New Beginning

There are many firsts for China in this supercarrier. It is the biggest Chinese aircraft carrier, with 80000 to 100000-ton displacement. It has a flat deck rather than the ski jump featured on two earlier carriers, Liaoning and Shandong. It is fitted with Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS)-powered catapults to launch its aircraft. The EMALS would be the biggest step since, until now, this technology has only been demonstrated by the US.

Though diesel engine-powered Fujian resembles the US carrier USS Gerald R. Ford, however, in reality, it falls in the class and size of the US Kitty Hawk-class carriers, which were decommissioned in the 2000s. It doesn’t come near Nimitz or Ford-class nuclear-powered supercarriers in capabilities and range.

Despite all this, with Fujian, PLAN’s range gets extended, and it comes out of the so-called First Island Chain backwaters. Chinese President Xi Jinping is preparing for the 20th national congress of the CCP on the plank of nationalism. The launch of Fujian and a six-minute propaganda video called “Offence is our mission” showcasing the aircraft carrier is a step in that direction.

Where It All Begun

In 1998 a Chinese tourism operator bought a Soviet-era large aircraft-carrying cruiser, Varyag, from Ukraine but never utilized it. In 2001 the ship was towed from Ukraine to China, where it underwent major hull, radar, and electronics modernization. Thus began the PLAN’s air wing journey with Liaoning in 2012.

Liaoning has a modest air wing that includes 24 Shenyang J-15 fighters, six Changhe Z-18F anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters, four Changhe Z-18J airborne early warning helicopters, and two Harbin Z-9C rescue helicopters.

The First Home Run

Five years after commissioning its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in April 2017, China launched its second aircraft carrier, Type 002 Shandong. It got commissioned in December 2019. It was similar in size to Liaoning and used a STOBAR system. Indeed, Shandong was a marked improvement over Liaoning and an important step in China’s evolving aircraft carrier program.

Shandong has approximately 10 percent additional deck space and displaces a few thousand more tons than the Liaoning at 60000 tons. It features the advanced Type 346 S-band AESA radar system and eight additional aircraft. Both Liaoning and Shandong have six days of endurance before getting refueling. Both ships had undergone a large number of sea trials indicating all was not well with both the ships (Liaoning 10 trials in 13 months, Shandong 9 in 18 months). Despite completing around three years in service, Shandong is nowhere near combat readiness.

Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS)

There are two types of take-off and recovery systems existing, STOBAR and CATOBAT. In the Short Take-off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR), the frontal part of the deck is called ski jump since it elevates, forming a curve. During take-off, the aircraft is thrown upward due to this curve, gaining height. All this while aircraft’s engines with afterburners generate the required thrust to stabilize the aircraft in the flight.

CATOBAR means Catapult Assisted Take-off But Arrested Recovery. In these systems, the carrier’s deck is flat, thus called ‘Flat-topped’ aircraft carriers. Only the United States and France have been using this technology. The catapult stores energy. When this energy is released, it is converted into kinetic energy resulting in momentum for the aircraft.

Two types of systems are used to power the catapults: steam-powered catapults and EMALS. Until Fujian, only the US was using EMALS.

Steam-powered catapult systems are cumbersome and require large manpower to operate and maintain. They have a limitation as far as the aircraft weight is concerned. They also have an adverse effect on the life of the aircraft. Excess steam may damage the nose wheel landing gear, which is attached to the catapult. At the same time, less steam will provide inadequate speed for take-off.

On the other hand, EMALS has its pitfalls. EMALS is not a proven technology and fails very often, adversely affecting the warship’s ability to launch aircraft in quick succession. Another adverse effect is the electromagnetic interference (EMI) with electronic equipment of aircraft and ships, created by the high-power electromagnetic motors. It has been five years since the US Navy took delivery of the USS Gerald R. Ford, and the $13 billion aircraft carrier still can’t reliably generate sorties due to technical problems with EMALS.

The Fighter

STOBAR (ski jump) existing on Liaoning and Shandong imposes limitations on the aircraft’s takeoff weight and payload. CATOBAR facilitates an aircraft’s launch at maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) with a full payload. CATOBAR also enables airborne early warning aircraft (AEW&C) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to take-offs from the aircraft carrier.

China’s frontline carrier-based fighter aircraft is the J-15. The J-15 is a stolen design and unlicensed Chinese development based on a T-10K-3 prototype of the Russian Su-33 Flanker-D. It has a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 33 tons and an external payload of 6.5 tons. There are conflicting reports of the J-15 design being flawed, resulting in four known and multiple unknown crashes. Domestically developed WS-10H engines are unreliable compared to original Russian Salyut AL-31F engines. It is confirmed that unstable flight control systems were the key factor behind the at least two fatal accidents couple of years ago.

The J-15 may not be capable of taking off from the Liaoning or Shandong’s ski jump with full MTOW. The J-15’s MTOW depends on carrier speeds, which in turn generates headwinds. Though China claims that at the aircraft carrier’s operational speed of 28 knots, the J-15 can take off at 28-33 tons, and even at a slower speed of 20 knots, the weight is 31 tons, there is no way of substantiating these claims.

Ski jumps require a certain level of carrier headwind for an aircraft to be launched at given requisite loads, while catapults offer substantially more flexibility for the carrier’s navigation. Ski jumps also present more risk in the event of an engine failure during launch compared to catapults. Fujian fitted with EMALS would facilitate PLAN to overcome this operational shortfall.

The J-15 acquired the J-11B avionics suite modified with multirole capability. Its weapon suite includes air-to-air PL-12 BVRAAM and PL-8 SRAAM, supersonic YJ-91 anti-radiation missile (derived from the Russian Kh-31, YJ-83K subsonic standoff anti-ship missile, KD-88 subsonic standoff land attack weapon. The 1200 km operational range of the J-15, along with 200 km of weapon range, theoretically makes it a capable naval fighter.

Meanwhile, the twin-engine, mid-size, fifth-generation Shenyang FC-31 Gyrfalcon, also known as the J-31 or J-35, is being positioned by Shenyang Aircraft Corporation as a capable carrier-borne stealth fighter jet. Its internal and external weapon storage, 1200 km combat range and interoperability with the carrier-based AEW&C KJ-600 could make it a formidable naval fighter based on the Fujian in the coming years.

A Hit Or A Miss

The Fujian is much longer at 1037 ft compared to INS Vikramaditya (932 ft) and IAC-1, INS Vikrant (860 ft). Their respective tonnage of 45,500 and 45,000 also dwarf compared to Fujian’s 1,00,000 tons when fully loaded.

Theoretically, Fujian’s EMALS will launch aircraft in quick succession and assist the fighters in carrying more fuel and weapons, therefore extending the reach and size of the punch the aircraft carrier packs. With the help of carrier-borne AEW&C aircraft and UAVs, the enemies would also be spotted at a greater distance.

The Fujian is conventionally powered, but it is predicted that the yet-to-be-built Type 04 will be nuclear-powered. As per reports, work has already begun on the fourth Chinese aircraft carrier. China will add 100 new ships by 2030, taking the total to 425 battle-force ships. PLAN also intends to have six aircraft carrier strike groups by 2035.

India, on the other hand, might not achieve the aim of 200 platforms in the next decade. Presently there are around 39 ships and submarines at various stages of construction and induction, eventually taking the total to 170 platforms.

While India remains focused on the well-guarded 3500 km-long India-China borders, little attention is paid to the 7800 km-long Indian coastlines and the vast Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Keeping in mind the Shandong, which is still not combat-ready after three years of commissioning, it is amply clear that the Fujian may take five to seven years before it attains initial operational capabilities and takes part in any operation.

The J-15 may fall behind in capability compared with 4.5 generation aircraft, most prominently in its lack of an AESA radar, but induction of the J-35 would overcome that shortfall.

PLAN has also suffered a severe shortage of carrier-based pilots; a lack of training and combat experience. In recent years, they have tried to cover the shortage of naval pilots by recruiting more cadets and improving training standards.

All in all, induction of the Fujian will boost Chinese capabilities; after all, quantity has a quality of its own. Indian and the US Navy do not have much time to gloat upon their past glory. The time has come to sharpen the sword before it is too late.

“Successful countries have friends; very successful countries have enemies” ~ Insightful Geopolitics

****************


Author
A veteran of the Indian Navy, Cdr Dhawan served in the Navy from 1988 to 2009. He was a Maritime Reconnaissance Pilot and a Flying Instructor. He is a geopolitical analyst and writes for various online websites and organizations.

Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of Chanakya Forum. All information provided in this article including timeliness, completeness, accuracy, suitability or validity of information referenced therein, is the sole responsibility of the author. www.chanakyaforum.com does not assume any responsibility for the same.


Chanakya Forum is now on . Click here to join our channel (@ChanakyaForum) and stay updated with the latest headlines and articles.

Important

We work round the clock to bring you the finest articles and updates from around the world. There is a team that works tirelessly to ensure that you have a seamless reading experience. But all this costs money. Please support us so that we keep doing what we do best. Happy Reading

Support Us
Or
9289230333
Or

POST COMMENTS (31)

Madhu

Jun 28, 2022
Well researched article Sandeep, but yearning for more. Where did China train its fighter pilots to operate from a carrier? Are they developing their own carrier tactics?

Cdr Ravi Mathews

Jun 27, 2022
A well thought and written article.

Pradeep Sharan

Jun 27, 2022
Very informative article, Sandeep.

Surendra Ahuja

Jun 26, 2022
Good stuff, Sandeep! Keep going!

Rakesh P

Jun 26, 2022
Loved it. Crisp and very informative.

Ashish Popli

Jun 26, 2022
Yet again, a fine informative article on subject not discussed and less understood by many...not the technical part but the implications for US and India in IOR. India has made good strides in the Naval domain, however, it's catch up time....more capital acquisitions required and far more involvement by private industry in manufacturing.

V Mohan

Jun 26, 2022
An excellent comparative analysis of the impending scenario. A wake up call to India to strengthen its naval arsenal and strategy to deal with the future. Thanks for a very informative article.

Deovrat Pagay

Jun 26, 2022
China’s grey zone tactics in the South China Sea has significantly increased the chance of a military conflict. As China’s military might increases, the US will turn to ever more dangerous fret zone operations. India has to take note of China’s aggressive behavior and subsequent grey zone actions in the IOR.

BINOO KRISHNA

Jun 26, 2022
Excellent, as always, Commander! As said, we start sharpening the sooner rather than later.

S P SINGH

Jun 26, 2022
A well researched writeup on growing capabilities of PLAN, a key element in the overarching Chinese plan to dominate the seas for self protection n power assertion should the need arise. Much that China is an adversary continuously demonised by the West for its meteoric rise, one must give it to them for their resolve, resilience, innovation, competence n industriousness. Nothing was heard of PLAN till two decades back, yet today they are building Carriers combat ships, submarines n unsinkable Carriers like Mischief Reef, Paracel, Spartly et al to not only dominate SCS but Indo Pacific n beyond. That China will one day upend the decadent and exploitative World Order of the West is a great silver lining of this rapid emergence of Naval power. India has along way to go. To start with let us have a coherent National Security n Defence Policy, work on it, allocate budgets to meet those needs, of which Naval power would be a key element to project national power.

Utpal

Jun 26, 2022
It was nice reading a well researched writeup Regards

Raman Sharma

Jun 26, 2022
Informative. Comparative figures,terse explanation and brevity makes it a good read.

Cdr Deepak Singh

Jun 25, 2022
You said it. Quantity and Quality. EMALS are yet to be proven. And Chinese Aircrafts have no credibility, mostly Russian copy or stolen design. But atleast they are making Engines, good or bad. And their spare parts problem is robust. Again, good bad or ugly. We Indians have not been able to make a single engine till date. HAL is sitting on the Kaveri engine since I woke up in Navy. SO to ACNS(air) I had enough information. PSU HAL can't be a solution. Money pumped in without results. Involve private companies is the word of the day.

Mayank Sharma

Jun 25, 2022
Excellent, as usual.

Shaurya Shandilya

Jun 25, 2022
A great article as always. Scary Stats!

Wendell Bruges

Jun 25, 2022
A very relevant and timely article, giving unknown details in a straightforward language for a layman like me to understand. Thank you, Commander.

Amitabh

Jun 25, 2022
Another good article by Cdr Sandeep Dhawan. The steady progress being made by China in developing and building their numbers of war machines, points towards their future intentions. Their designs might be short on some aspects but with time and technological advancements they would be catching up fast, with the best available in market. It is a matter of time. It is imperative that our nation builds our own capabilities to stay abreast with the future threats. The time and adversary will not wait for us to catch up.

Jp Chitkara

Jun 25, 2022
Well articulated. Well compared with their existing carriers. PLAN do have shortage of carrier borne pilots. Rightly brought out reliability of EMALS. Let's watch.

Sid Gupta

Jun 25, 2022
As always, great articulation. Always love reading your research papers. I do feel that India needs to ramp up our asset built drastically to match any overtures from these emerging powers. I do believe that we have that realization and doing bits and pieces.. I think the best results can only evolve once we get our mindset rebooted to growth and dominance rather than survive and catch up game. Thank you though for this great documentation.

Aninda Mukherjee

Jun 25, 2022
Brilliant

Raman Gupta

Jun 25, 2022
A real deep dive into PLAN's plans. Hope someone at the helm of India's strategic planning is doing the same.

Anupam

Jun 25, 2022
China is racing ahead of India and in few years from now would be able to challenge US in South China Sea. Aircraft carrier would help them to stand upto US. Worrying times ahead..

JITINDRA BHATIA

Jun 25, 2022
Dear Sandeep. Very well researched article. Thanks for the insight. Great knowledge. Jitindra

Praveen Bhaik

Jun 25, 2022
Great insight and very informative. 🙏🏻

Joseph Mathew

Jun 25, 2022
An excellent article, giving a good idea of Chinese naval ambitions.

M Thakur

Jun 25, 2022
Good reading with minute details and easy to grasp

Sukhjit

Jun 25, 2022
The race for world domination is underway. China is new entrant so cannot match the giant but given its single minded pursuit, the day is just few years down the line. Time now for Indian government to start taking action cognisance

Rajesh Dhawan

Jun 25, 2022
Very nicely written article with lots of information to make a layman to und the fine points of this side of technology. China has lot's of money power, areas to control supply chain activities of many countries, she has quantity everywhere but not the quality (which it has improved to some extent) including that in its combat personals. It was already seen in Galwan valley. China will not have a direct war with India in next 10 years.

Rajesh Dhawan

Jun 25, 2022
Very nicely written article with lots of information to make a layman to und the fine points of this side of technology. China has lot's of money power, areas to control supply chain activities of many countries, she has quantity everywhere but not the quality (which it has improved to some extent) including that in its combat personals. It was already seen in Galwan valley. China will not have a direct war with India in next 10 years. Beijing has other priorities like Tiawan and demonstrative action has already started on Tiawan. But this will be suicidal not only for China but also for whole world because then everything will come to halt for non availability of chips or total control of China on it. World should not think that at present the fire on someone else door. It's radiation will kill everyone.

Capt Arun Kumar

Jun 25, 2022
Nicely compiled article, giving in brief all types of Aircraft carriers, size, technology used for launch recovery and problems faced by them . US has definitely gone on reducing its Carrier Force and others are just revolving around with few . With Missile technology becoming deadly in terms of range, speed and passive characteristics, ships at sea , specially carriers are becoming more vulnerable. India has signed deals with Russia on many Missile technology and future of warfare at sea will definitely see a sea change . China is definitely emerging as Super Power and will have bigger role to play in world politics than just threatening India as such.

Romina

Jun 25, 2022
Well explained as usual. Indeed the time has come to sharpen our swords. Very informative and insightful.

Leave a Comment