Explained: Why China's third aircraft carrier, the Fujian, is a big deal

Explained: Why China's third aircraft carrier, the Fujian, is a big deal

Explained: Why China's third aircraft carrier, the Fujian, is a big deal

China on Friday launched its third aircraft carrier Fujian, the country’s most advanced, as an aggressive Beijing sought to extend the range of its navy in the strategic Indo-Pacific region and perhaps at a later date to the faraway Indian Ocean where it has already acquired bases.

Fujian was launched at a brief ceremony held at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard, the official media reported from the eastern metropolis.

The Fujian was launched at a short but festive ceremony where the naming certificate of the vessel was given to the top officer receiving the delivery of the aircraft carrier.

Officials then cut the ribbon marking the launch of the third aircraft carrier, after which the massive vessel left the dock.

Let's take a closer look at it, why it is important and how it compares to India’s INS Vikramaditya:

What is the Fujian?

The Fujian is China’s first domestically-designed and built catapult aircraft carrier, Xinhua news agency reported.

The launch was delayed by two months due to the COVID lockdown of Shanghai. It was due to be launched on April 23 around the 73rd anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

Built by China State Shipbuilding Corporation Limited, the Fujian has a displacement of more than 80,000 tonnes and is equipped with electromagnetic catapults and arresting devices.

Naval experts say Fujian may take some time to become operational. Perhaps PLAN may begin sending aircraft carriers to the Indian Ocean by 2025.

Why is the name significant?

Fujian, in the southeast, is the closest province to Taiwan, a self-ruling province that China says must be reunified with the mainland, even by force.

What are Fujian’s features?

The Fujian, which is the “first fully domestically developed and constructed” aircraft carrier with an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), has a flat, straight flight deck and arresting device.

This satellite image from Planet Labs PBC shows China's new Type 003 aircraft carrier with bunting on its desk preparing to be launched Wednesday, June 15, 2022, from a shipyard in Shanghai, China. China on Friday, June 17, 2022, launched its third aircraft carrier, the first such ship to be designed and built entirely within the country. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

EMALS functions on powerful magnetic fields generated by electromagnetic induction motors to propel lighter objects, use fewer resources and recharge faster, as per Eurasian Times.

It has a full displacement of more than 80,000 tonnes, as much as 20,000 tonnes more than the other two aircraft carriers.

The J-15 aircraft which China currently operates for its aircraft carriers were regarded a major problem for the PLAN as each plane weighed about 18 tonnes, too heavy for carriers in the long run. The planes were considered to be a big drag.

A Global Times report said Fujian would get an improved version of the J-15 heavy fighter compatible with a catapult launch, another electronic warfare version of the same jet, a stealth fighter called the J-35, and a fixed-wing EW aircraft called the KJ-600.

EMALS was regarded by Indian naval experts as a major leap forward by the Chinese navy as currently, only the US has such an advanced one.

It is more energy-efficient and reduces maintenance. It is also used on the US Navy’s Gerald R. Ford-class carriers.

China’s other two aircraft carriers, which are equipped with ski-jump take-off ramps, the Fujian features a flat-top flight deck.

The Type 003 warship with a hull number of 18 is the first carrier in China’s fleet to use an electromagnetic catapult to launch planes from the deck, which is faster than the older steam catapult system.

How does INS Vikramaditya compare?

The INS Vikramaditya, meanwhile, is a refurbished Russian Kiev-class carrier, originally named Baku when in the Soviet Navy in the late 1980s.

It was decommissioned in 1996, refurbished and entered the service of the Indian Navy on 16 November, 2013. It serves on the Western seas.

The INS Vikramaditya is propelled by eight turbo-pressurized boilers and four geared steam turbines generating a total output power of 180,000shp.

It can hit a speed of up to 30 knots.

These boilers power four enormous propellers, each greater in diameter than twice the height of an average male.

INS Vikramaditya has an overall length of about 284 meters and a maximum beam of about 60 meters, stretching as much as three football fields put together.

Standing about 20 storeys tall from keel to the highest point, the ship has a total of 22 decks.

Capable of hosting over 1,600 personnel, INS Vikramaditya has a capacity of over 8,000 tonnes of LSHSD and capable of operations up to a range of over 7,000 nautical miles or 13,000 kms.

The 44,500-tonne vessel has specialized recovery equipment capable of carrying MiG 29K/Sea Harrier, Kamov 31, Kamov 28, Sea King, ALH-Dhruv and Chetak helicopters.

The Indian Navy currently operates 45 MiG-29Ks, including variants and some two-seaters on it.

File image of INS Vikramaditya.

Over the years, the carrier has taken part in multiple naval exercises, and tremendously added to IN’s blue-water capabilities.

‘Launch of Fujian to provide China more operational room’

However, the launch of Fujian is expected to provide more room for China to operate in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits which have strategic significance for China where it is pitted against periodic US naval incursions, including the aircraft carriers.

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was a refit of the Soviet-era ship commissioned in 2012, followed by the indigenously built 2nd aircraft carrier Shandong in 2019.

The Liaoning is so far the only Chinese aircraft carrier with initial operational capability or the basic level of combat readiness.

China plans to have around five aircraft carriers, according to state media.

The next aircraft carrier China plans to build is expected to be nuclear-powered.

Experts on strategic significance for India

Experts say the fast-paced construction of aircraft carriers by China has strategic significance for India too.

The launch of Fujian could provide leeway for PLAN to step out of the region and head to India’s backyard, the Indian Ocean, where the Indian Navy has a sizable presence.

But experts told Eurasian Times that China is far from mastering the complex carrier operations that the US, British and Indian navies have taken decades to perfect.

“There are various departments in a carrier ranging from aviation to the engine room, gunnery/air defense, logistics, meteorology, etc. Getting all of them to work in tandem is one thing. It is a whole other to get them to sail with other surface assets like destroyers, frigates, and fleet replenishment tankers in diverse sea conditions. All this while operating all kinds of aircraft (fighters, helicopters, and other fixed-wing planes) from the deck. Chinese are undoubtedly working hard to catch up. Still, they know they are far from the sheer experience Indian and Western navies have,” said Commodore G Prakash (Retd), a former naval aviator.

China has already expanded its naval base at Djibouti in the horn of Africa to berth aircraft carriers.

China has also acquired the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka as a debt swap for 99 years. It is also modernising Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea.

In a major rejig of its military doctrine, China since 2013 stepped up the development of the navy with a massive budget while cutting down the number of army troops.

The modernisation included building several aircraft carriers besides submarines, frigates and assault ships as part of its efforts to expand its global influence.

According to one estimate, China is building almost a naval ship a month.

However, recent reports said the speedy launch of the aircraft carriers is resulting in technical issues and repairs delaying their operational readiness.

China’s indigenously built 2nd aircraft carrier Shandong, which was launched in 2019, had to undergo in April its first maintenance and comprehensive examination.

China’s naval build-up

China’s naval build-up comes amid growing geopolitical tensions with the US, which under President Joe Biden is seeking to strengthen ties with allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region to counter Beijing’s growing economic influence and military might.

For the time being, China’s aircraft carriers may provide strategic heft for China in the disputed South China Sea where it is engaged in hotly contested territorial disputes.

Beijing has built up and militarised many of the islands and reefs it controls in the region. Both areas are stated to be rich in minerals, oil and other natural resources and are vital to global trade.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have counter claims over the area.

With inputs from agencies

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