China launches Fujian, PLA Navy’s 3rd aircraft carrier
- The Type 003 is China’s first carrier to use an advanced electromagnetic catapult system to launch planes from its deck
- The warship left the Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai on Friday to begin testing of its mooring and navigation systems
The Fujian – named after the southeastern coastal province – left the Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai, after at least two delays. The launch was televised by state broadcaster CCTV.
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.
The launch of the Fujian makes the Type 003 the second carrier class in the world – after the US Navy’s Gerald R. Ford class – to use the advanced catapult system that allows planes to launch more frequently and with a bigger payload of fuel and munitions.
That translates to more sorties and a larger striking and reconnaissance range, compared to the ramp-assisted launchers on China’s other two carriers, the Liaoning and Shandong.
With the Fujian, China has leapfrogged the older and less power-efficient steam catapult launcher to replace its ski-jump take-off ramps with the most advanced electromagnetic catapults.
The launch began at 11am with the singing of the national anthem and a flag-raising ceremony. After the ribbon was cut, the Fujian was christened with a bottle of champagne smashed against its hull.
The vessel, with a full-load displacement of more than 80,000 tonnes, sounded a blast on its horn as it moved slowly out of Jiangnan shipyard’s No 4 dock.
Political slogans written in large white Chinese characters against a red background were attached to shelters on the deck. “Deliver combat power – fighting to fully build a world-class navy,” one read.
The environmental shelters, apparently protecting the catapults, have been in place on the flight deck for months.
While Chinese state media has not released detailed specifications of the Fujian, satellite images show the new carrier is about 320 metres (1,050 feet) long and 73 metres wide (239 feet), a little smaller than the Ford-class carriers.
The Fujian has three catapults and two aircraft lifts, one fewer of each than the Ford-class vessels.
CCTV said the testing of the carrier’s mooring and navigation systems will be the first priority after Friday’s launch.
Beijing is planning at least six aircraft carrier battle groups by 2035, with four expected to be nuclear-powered. This would allow the Chinese navy to sail further out to sea and conduct more complex operations.
The Fujian is likely to be used to project Chinese power in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, said Li Nan, a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute.
“China is building up its naval power from regional to global,” he said. “The central vulnerability of China’s blue-water navy is air cover.”
Li said that while China has plenty of well-built surface ships, such as the Type 055 destroyer, carriers will enable the Chinese navy to gain air superiority for offensive and defensive operations far from its shores, including the contested Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands.
The aircraft carrier has limited use in a conflict with Taiwan because the People’s Liberation Army already has plenty of airfields to achieve air superiority over the island, he said.
China has built military facilities on artificial islands in disputed waters of the South China Sea. An airfield, for example, was built in 2016 on Fiery Cross Reef, which China calls Yongshu Reef.
The electromagnetic catapult can also be adjusted to launch drones and larger reconnaissance aircraft, such as those fitted with an airborne warning and control system, thereby increasing the range of detecting adversaries, Li said.
“Comparatively speaking, [the Fujian] is a milestone. It definitely brings about a range of new technologies, but mainly the launching technology, the electromagnetic launching catapult. I think that’s critical,” he said.
The launch of the Fujian is believed to have been delayed at least twice. It was initially expected to be unveiled on April 23 for the PLA Navy’s 73rd anniversary but was postponed because of Covid-19 lockdowns in Shanghai.
It was then expected to launch on June 3, to coincide with the Dragon Boat Festival, but was again postponed without explanation.
China’s first aircraft carrier went into commission on September 26, 2012 and was named “Liaoning” after the northeastern province. It was refurbished and upgraded from the unfinished Soviet carrier Varyag, which China bought from Ukraine in 1998.
That was followed by the Shandong, which was built in China but based on the Liaoning design. They are both conventionally powered aircraft carriers, as is the Fujian.
China already has the largest navy in the world by number of warships, but most of its fleet is made up of smaller classes of ships.