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Chinese Fujian Heads Towards Blue Waters

China’s Fujian aircraft carrier, equipped with cutting-edge electromagnetic catapults, prepares for sea trials, marking a milestone in the nation’s naval capabilities

Issue: 5/2023 By Vice Admiral A.K. Chawla (Retd)Photo(s): By China Military Online / Li Gang
China’s 3rd Aircraft Carrier, the Fujian

Recent media reports indicate that Fujian (Type 003), China’s first indigenously designed and built aircraft carrier, is all set to start sea trials in the near future. Laid down on March 2015, it was launched on June 17, 2022 at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. Powering and mooring trials of the ship commenced in April 2023 and are reported to have been completed successfully.

Induction and Specifications

Named after the Fujian province in China, Fujian will be China’s first CATOBAR (catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery) carrier and is fited with electromagnetic catapults, as compared to the ski-jump on the first two carriers. It is only the second aircraft carrier in the world (after the USS Ford) to be fitted with an electromagnetic aircraft launch system. It is understood that the Fujian was originally to be fitted with conventional steam-powered catapults but a decision was taken at the highest level of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in 2017 to fit the Fujian with an ‘integrated electric propulsion (IEP) system’ capable of powering advanced electromagnetic launch systems.

Scheduled to be commisioned in 2025 (a delay of an year over the previously estimated timeline of 2024), it is 316 metres long, with a maximum beam of 76 metres and has a full load displacement of around 85,000 tonnes. It is planned to carry an air wing of over 60 aircraft, 40 of them being fighter aircraft, with the rest comprising helicopters, airborne early warning, tanker and communication aircraft. The ship is estimated to have a crew of 2,000 personnel with 1,000 personnel additional required to man and service its air wing.

PLA-N Fujian vs USS Ford

The Fujian has inevitably drawn comparisons with the latest Ford class carrier of the US Navy, which recently joined active service. With an overall length of around 316 metres, it is 17 metres shorter than the USS Ford. It has two aircraft lifts and three catapults, as compared to three lifts and four catapults with the USS Ford, which will give it a lesser sortie generation rate. However, the Fujian’s electromagnetic catapult, similar to the EMALS on the Ford, will enable it to launch heavier aircraft such as the KJ-600 airborne early warning and control aircraft. The ship is likely to carry the Shenyang J-15T fighter; an upgraded version of the J-15B operated from the Liaoning and Shandong, and could graduate to the FC-31/J-35 ‘Gyrafalcon’ fifth generation fighters (Chinese equivalent of F-35) in the future. It has an integrated electronic mast, which is a hallmark of advanced shipbuilding and mitigates mutual interference while reducing the radar signature of the ship. It is powered by 8 steam boilers feeding turbines, which generate 2,20,000 horse power on four shafts, giving it the ability to achieve a top speed of 31 knots. While its conventional propulsion remains a drawback as compared to the US Navy’s nuclear powered aircraft carriers, China plans to redress this very soon with its Type 004 nuclear-powered super carrier.

Progress and Significance

The Fujian’s progress is being actively monitored on China’s social media platforms, especially Weibo. The fact that multiple photographs of its progress are freely available indicates that the Chinese government is tacitly encouraging this publicity. Recently, Chinese social media platform photos revealed that the ship’s sea trials seemed to be imminent due to the sighting of smoke emerging from its funnel, indicative of commencement of trials of its propulsion systems, as also from the readiness visible on its upper decks where most work seems to have been completed. Significantly, the three huge covers on its electromagnetic catapults have also been removed, which indicates that dummy launches from the catapults could commence shortly. Reports also indicate that sea trials could take up to six months after which flight trials of fixed wing aircraft and trials of other weapon systems would be undertaken, perhaps over a period of another year. Reports also indicate that the J-15T has been modified to be launched from the new catapult system. The J-15T is an upgraded version of the J-15 ‘Flying Shark’, a fourth generation aircraft and China’s only ship-borne fighter jet. This is supported by news reports that PLA Navy pilots had been training in take-off and landing operations at a shore training facility since 2016.

Scheduled for commission in 2025, the Fujian is set to carry over 60 aircraft, including 40 fighter jets, with a crew of 2,000 personnel and an additional 1,000 to service its air wing

Taiwanese observers have been observing the progress of the Fujian closely and assessing its impact on a possible invasion of the island nation by China. Taiwan’s National Defence Report 2023 states that Fujian’s larger size will enable it to carry more fighters on board (estimated to be 40, as compared to 32 on the Shandong and 18 on the Liaoning). The electromagnetic catapult capability will also enable the launch of heavier aircraft with greater weapon and sensor capability and longer endurance, as also the capability to generate higher sortie rates, and therefore significantly enhance the capability of the PLA Navy to exercise sea control around Taiwan. It is apprehended that the commissioning of the Fujian could embolden the Chinese leadership to go ahead with the threat of integrating Taiwan by force, estimated by US intelligence as likely around 2027. China’s three aircraft carriers operating under its A2AD umbrella comprising shore-based anti-ship ballistic missiles and air power, SSNs and conventional submarines, and modern surface escorts, could effectively enforce sea control around Taiwan, especially its east coast. In any case, the Fujian will further reinforce the deterrent effect that China seeks to achieve with the unprecedented build-up of its maritime power. The perceived threat from the Fujian has been magnified by the enhancement of the show of force around Taiwan by China in recent months, which has included intrusion by hundreds of aircraft across the ‘median line’ between China and Taiwan as also repeated encirclement of the island by PLA Navy ships (including its aircraft carriers), in a rehearsal of a blockade of Taiwan.

However, Fujian’s forthcoming induction is not just related to the Taiwan issue. It is also in sync with China’s current maritime strategy of ‘far sea operations’ and its ambitions to become a maritime power that one day will exercise ‘command of the seas’. The significance of the induction of an entirely new class of aircraft carriers into the PLA Navy, and the role it will play in facilitating the construction of the Type 004 nuclearpowered aircraft carriers, which are planned to follow the Fujian class, is even more important. These CATOBAR carriers are eventually planned to comprise the nucleus of six carrier task forces (CTFs) by 2040 supported by the Type 055 Renhai class 13,000 tonne cruisers (or large destroyers), Type 052D destroyers, SSNs and conventional AIP-armed submarines. When realised, they will form a formidable offensive maritime force, with equally daunting deterrent capability, comparable to the present-day US carrier strike groups (CSGs).


India needs to take note that China’s aircraft carrier capability is leap-frogging into the ‘big league’ currently tenanted only by the US. China’s active development of the entire range of aircraft carrier technology, including the electromagnetic launch system, nuclear reactors, and the various aircraft required to operate from their carriers, including fighter aircraft, airborne early warning aircraft, multi-role helicopters and carrier-based drones. It is noteworthy that the PLA Navy first announced that its next aircraft carrier would be fitted with an electromagnetic launch system in 2013, and by 2017 the IEP required to power them was ready, which allowed the new catapults to be retrofitted on the Fujian. The speed of shipbuilding is also noteworthy. Work commenced in the Jiangnan Shipyard in 2016 and the design of the ship was frozen in 2017 after the electromagnetic launch system had been proved ashore. The ship was launched in mid-2022 and is likely to proceed for sea trials just over a year later. The fact that the Jiangnan Shipyard had not constructed an aircraft carrier earlier (the Liaoning and Shandong were retrofitted and constructed respectively at the Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Company, Dalian) is also significant and indicates the diverse capacity of China’s shipbuilding expertise. Even more significantly, almost all weapons and sensors on the ship (and other PLA Navy ships) are produced in China. While it is estimated that all the new carrier-borne aircraft and associated technologies might still take up to a decade to be operationalised in their entirety, given their determined progress, China’s stated goal of building a sea control navy with global reach and ultimately ‘command the seas’ seems to be closer than ever.

Media reports indicate that the Indian Navy’s long-pending case for a third aircraft carrier, in the form of a repeat order for the INS Vikrant, is close to approval. While this is excellent news, we need to ensure that the planning for a larger and more capable aircraft carrier continues in parallel, along with the development of various technologies required for indigenous production of its critical equipment and air wing. Given the speed of China’s maritime expansion, time is of the essence.