- Nov 4, 2011
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China’s new aircraft carrier will be dangerously close to matching US capabilitiesIt’s only the second carrier in the world with electromagnetic catapults
2 June 2023 • 11:30am
A Chinese J-15 carrier jet ready for takeoff at sea CREDIT: An Ni/Xinhua
Back in mid-April, Chinese forces staged one of their biggest-ever war games rehearsing a surprise invasion of Taiwan. It’s not unusual for People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aircraft to fly into Taiwan’s air-defence identification zone – a kind of unofficial defensive area – as a show of strength, and as practice for an actual attack.
What was unusual was the presence of an aircraft carrier. For the first time ever, a Chinese flattop – the four-year-old Shandong – joined the scores of fighters and bombers probing Taiwan’s defences.
If there’s a silver lining for the Taiwanese and their allies, it’s that Shandong and her 12-year-old sister vessel Liaoning are small by the standards of the world’s leading carrier power, the US Navy. The newest of the USN’s 11 flattops, USS Gerald R Ford, displaces 100,000 tons, making her around half again larger than Shandong and Liaoning. The Chinese carriers support maybe three dozen aircraft, half as many as routinely embark on an American carrier.
The bigger a carrier is, the more planes it can support, the greater its endurance in combat and the more damage it can absorb. In carrier aviation, size matters. So for the moment, the US fleet can rest easy. It has many more flattops than the PLAN, and they’re much bigger and more capable. They’re a sort of naval insurance policy at a time when Chinese military power is expanding by leaps and bounds – and threatening the US-enforced stability of the Pacific region.
But the American-Chinese carrier gap is shrinking, fast. A little over a month ago, the Chinese fleet’s third carrier, Fujian, fired up its powerplant for the first time at a shipyard in Shanghai. Next up: the 80,000-ton carrier’s short first trial cruise, a prerequisite for commissioning into front-line service some time in the next couple of years.
When Fujian joins the fleet, it will hugely boost China’s naval power: specifically, its ability to assault Taiwan from two sides. Short-range forces can attack from the west across the narrow Taiwan Strait. Longer-range forces – including carriers – can strike at the island democracy from the Philippine Sea to the east.
Liaoning and Shandong can attack from the east today, but those carriers’ shared design limits their striking power. Liaoning and Shandong are built to Soviet flattop designs from the 1980s. Besides being significantly smaller than a US Navy supercarrier, they lack the catapults that are present on all American carriers. Instead of catapulting from the deck, their planes take off under their own power by way of an angled ramp.
That seriously limits the planes’ takeoff weight, which means that they cannot carry a proper load of fuel and weapons. This is why, when Shandong took part in the April war game around Taiwan, the carrier had to come within 20 miles of Taiwan’s air-defence identification zone just to project lightly-armed J-15 fighters a short distance into the zone. American carrier fighters, including the latest F-35C tailhook stealth fighters, can fly for hours over distances of hundreds of miles while carrying tons of weapons.
But the picture will change again when Fujian joins the PLAN fleet. She is the first Chinese flattop with catapults. And they are electromagnetic catapults, which the USN has only just adopted. Only the Ford among all US carriers has electric cats, which are more efficient than traditional steam-powered catapults. This technology should allow Fujian to support a wide array of aircraft: new fully capable J-35 fifth-generation stealth fighters as well as radar-jamming planes, radar early-warning planes and probably a wide variety of drones. This is the same, fully capable mix of carrier aircraft the Americans take for granted.
Fujian is just one ship. She is still significantly smaller than a US carrier, and she still uses old-fashioned steam propulsion. It will take time for the Chinese fleet to form and train its air wing and integrate the wing and the flattop into China’s war plans. But the new carrier is yet another sign of Beijing’s growing naval power – and Washington’s eroding naval advantage in the Pacific. British readers will be disturbed to reflect that the Fujian will be somewhat bigger than the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth class carriers, will probably carry more planes, and her fifth-generation catapult fighters will be more capable than Britain’s F-35B vertical-thrust jets.
And the PLAN’s carrier ambitions won’t end with Fujian. The Chinese fleet is already designing its next flattop, which might be even bigger and more capable than Fujian – and might even have nuclear propulsion, which has long been standard on American carriers. Nuclear propulsion lets a carrier operate with much more independence from slow-moving fleet oilers, making more use of her speed, and it also lets the ship carry more aircraft. A nuclear ship doesn’t need engine air intakes and exhaust funnels, which frees up deck and hangar space for planes. China already has a number of nuclear-powered submarines.
No one outside of Beijing knows just how many carriers the PLAN intends to build over the long term, but it’s worth noting that the Chinese navy has three regional fleets. Each would benefit from having two flattops so that one can be on patrol while the other is undergoing maintenance or training.
In that case, the PLAN’s carrier force might top out at six ships. That’s five fewer flattops than the US Navy has, but one more than the American fleet keeps in the whole Pacific. It’s no wonder, then, that American naval leaders are so eager to support Japan’s own efforts to build up a small carrier force with F-35Bs.
The time is coming when the US Navy will need all the help it can get keeping up with – never mind staying ahead of – China’s growing carrier fleet.