Explained | China’s new high-tech aircraft carrier Fujian and its advanced catapult system

China on June 17 launched its third aircraft carrier, the first designed and built entirely in the country.

China on June 17 launched its third aircraft carrier, the first designed and built entirely in the country. | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: On June 17, China unveiled its first indigenous aircraft carrier , the new-generation Fujian. Touted to be the most-advanced aircraft carrier so far, it marks a milestone for a nation that is looking to extend its military power, especially in the strategic Indo-Pacific region.

The Fujian has been named after China’s eastern coastal province which lies across from Taiwan. It was launched near Shanghai amid heightened tensions between China and the United States over Taiwan. With the launch of the Fujian, China now has the most number of aircraft carriers after the U.S. The Fujian joins two other carriers currently operated by China — Shandong (Type 001), commissioned in 2019, and the Liaoning (Type 002), bought second-hand from Ukraine in 1998.

The Fujian and its capabilities

Fujian was completely designed and built domestically, as per Chinese state broadcaster CCTV. Under construction since 2018, it was scheduled to be launched on April 23 around the 73rd anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army Navy or PLAN, but was delayed due to the COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai. The Fujian finally left its drydock after a festive ceremony attended by senior military officials on June 17. It has been built by the China State Shipbuilding Corporation Limited.

The Fujian’s displacement is 80,000 tonnes, much more than the existing Chinese carriers, and comparable to U.S. Navy aircraft carriers.

The Type 003 carrier is also significantly more technologically advanced than its predecessors Shandong and Liaoning. The Fujian has been fitted with the latest launch technology — the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), first developed by the U.S. Navy. It also has a straight flat-top flight deck for take-offs and landings; The two existing vessels use a ski jump-style ramp.

Satellite image from Planet Labs PBC shows China’s new Type 003 aircraft carrier.

Satellite image from Planet Labs PBC shows China’s new Type 003 aircraft carrier. | Photo Credit: AP

What is EMALS: An aircraft onboard a carrier needs extra help to get airborne since the length of the runway on deck is insufficient to achieve the speed needed for takeoff. One of the ways to provide this extra push is by the use of catapults. Catapult Assisted Take-off But Arrested Recovery or (CATOBAR) is one such system. In this, an aircraft takes off from a completely flat deck with the help of catapults. Once the catapult is released, the aircraft attached to the catapult moves forward with great speed in a short time, which helps it to gain the speed required to take off before it reaches the end of the runway. 

There are two types of catapult systems — steam-powered, and electromagnetic ones called EMALS. While the former uses steam pressure to fire catapults, EMALS uses linear induction motors. The electromagnetic force generated is used to launch the aircraft. 

Compared to steam catapults, EMALS is more reliable, requires less maintenance, recharges faster , doesn’t take up much space on a carrier and is energy-efficient. The electromagnetic system can launch a wide variety of aircraft weights and can be used on different platforms due to its flexible architecture. It also reduces the stress on the aircraft during take-off. The system, however, is expensive. As of now, USS Gerald R. Ford carriers of the U.S. Navy use the advanced catapult system.

According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the Type 003 carrier will be able to launch fixed-wing aircraft with heavier payloads and more fuel with the use of EMALS.

Is India using EMALS? In 2017, the U.S. provided India with its EMALS technology, developed by the U.S. defence company General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

India explored the possibility of installing the system, but the Navy dropped the plan due to budget constraints, as per the Indian Defence Research Wing. 

However, the state-owned Bharat Electronics Limited in Bengaluru is reportedly working on an EMALS model that could be tested for CATOBAR operations on Indian warships in the near future. 

Presently, India’s sole aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya works on a Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery, or STOBAR mechanism with an angular ski-jump. India’s second aircraft carrier named INS Vikrant, set to be commissioned later this year, will use the CATOBAR system to launch aircraft.

Why Fujian’s launch is important

The Fujian is a part of the military modernisation plan of President Xi Jinping . The Chinese President has vowed to build a modern force that can rival the U.S. military by 2027 and become a “blue water” Navy— one that operates globally . 

Collin Koh, a researcher at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University told AFP that the launch of Fujian could be a “game-changer” for China. “The conventional flight deck with (electromagnetic catapults) will at least, in theory, allow the carrier to launch aircraft faster and with heavier payloads — which constitute key deciding factors during battle,” he said . 

“This is an important milestone for China’s military-industrial complex,” an analyst with a defence intelligence company was quoted as saying by Associated Press. “This shows that Chinese engineers are now able to indigenously manufacture the full suite of surface combatants associated with modern naval warfare, including corvettes, frigates, destroyers, amphibious assault ships, and now an aircraft carrier,” Ridzwan Rahmat said.

The launch also assumes significance considering China is engaged in territorial disputes in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea — both areas vital to global trade. China has staked claim over almost all of the South China Sea and has deployed naval assets as a show of power in the strait that separates Taiwan from the Chinese mainland. With the Fujian, China is likely to get more room to operate in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits where it is pitted against U.S. aircraft carriers.

The Indian Navy has a sizeable presence in the Indian Ocean but the capabilities of the Fujian provide China with a leeway to head to India’s backyard, where it is increasing its presence. It is noteworthy that China has already acquired the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka as a debt swap, is modernising Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea and has expanded its naval base in the strategically important Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti.

However, even as China expands its military strength, the U.S. remains far ahead . At present, the United States is the world’s leader in aircraft carriers, with 11 nuclear-powered vessels, followed by China, Britain and Italy. The U.S. Navy is expected to grow to a strength of 420 ships by 2025 and reach 460 by 2030. The PLAN, meanwhile, currently has 355 ships, including submarines.

What next for the aircraft carrier?

Now that the Fujian has been launched into the water, it will be fitted out with equipment, which could take two to six months. This will be followed by trials, for another six months. After trials are completed, engineers will launch test loads using the catapult system. While authorities have not announced a date, experts say the first aircraft could launch from the Fujian by late 2023 and full operational capability is likely to be declared around 2025.

(With agency inputs)

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2022 7:37:27 pm |