China launches a new aircraft carrier in a bid to catch up with US capacity.

China launched its third and most advanced aircraft carrier on Friday as Beijing scrambles to catch up with US military capabilities and make good on threats to retake Taiwan by force if necessary.

The vessel, named Fujian after the coastal province off Taiwan, has been under construction at Shanghai’s Jiangnan shipyard since 2018. It will bridge the gap in China’s aircraft carrier fleet compared to its more established U.S. counterparts and is expected to come into service late next year or in 2024.

Fujian was scheduled to launch on June 3, according to analysts and media reports. But the date was pushed back due to the Shanghai covid outbreak and the two-month lockdown.

“The resumption of work after the pandemic control measures was slower than expected and workers were lacking,” said a Chinese military scholar, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media on the matter. “Equipment to equip further after launch was also not fully in place.”

The Fujian is the first Chinese aircraft carrier designed and manufactured entirely in the country. The Liaoning, the first aircraft carrier, is a refurbished hull bought in the Ukraine and the Shandong was built in China but based on their blueprint.

The PLA Navy aims to have six aircraft carriers by 2035, compared to the US Navy’s fleet of 11 vessels, according to writings by PLA scholars and mentions in official Chinese media.

The Shandong underwent nearly a year of construction work after it was launched in April 2017 and another 17 months of sea trials before being put into operation.

Fitting out and sea trials of the Fujian could take even longer, analysts said, but noted that it was further along. The first two carriers have ski jumps, an outdated design that can’t launch heavier aircraft and limits the number of weapons taking off fighters can carry. The new ship is equipped with an electromagnetic catapult, which combines with the most recent innovations of the US Navy.

“The [People’s Liberation Army Navy] will face challenges in the transition from [jumps] the more demanding [catapult] carrier operations, and this could delay achieving an operational capability with the new ship,” according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank. “It may also face teething problems similar to what the US encountered when introducing electromagnetic catapults.”

China has been building its ships faster than Western observers expected, but its deployment progress has not been as rapid.

“It sends a great signal when the third carrier is launched, but the problem is that you have to equip and operate it,” said Meia Nouwens, PLA expert on IISS. “The Liaoning is still exercising the formation of an aircraft carrier strike group nearly 10 years after it was handed over to the PLA Navy.”

Analysts say the PLA Navy’s most difficult challenge is a lack of qualified sailors and a shortage of suitable aircraft. “Their biggest problem is that they don’t have enough people,” said Hsu Yen-chi, a researcher at the Council for Strategic and Wargaming Studies think tank in Taipei, and they were scrambling to find the people needed to staff a naval aviation. regiment per aircraft carrier, which could require up to 3,000 individuals.

“The goal is to strike a strategic balance with the United States in the Western Pacific, as well as consolidate control of the South China Sea,” Hsu added. “The normal configuration would be 40 fighter jets per carrier, but if you look at their last exercise, they only have 20. So they’re a long way from where they want to be.”

China continues to produce more J-15 fighters that are used in Liaoning and Shandong and is working on a new high-speed version of the plane that is believed to be designed for use on the third carrier. “The key differences will be compatibility with catapults, advanced data links and radar systems, and of course a larger payload, including beyond visual range missiles,” said a Western military official who tracks the PLA.

The PLA is also exploring how to outperform its more advanced peers and address some of the weaknesses of a traditional carrier force. In a video released by the South China Sea Fleet this year, seven drones were seen on the deck of the Shandong.

“That they are attempting this shows that there are concerns in the leadership about the vulnerability of carriers to threats of the kind that China itself is using to prevent access and area denial against the US,” the military official said. western.

But analysts cautioned against assuming China’s capabilities are mature in these areas. Nouwens said that similar images were shown by Chinese state arms producers at the Zhuhai Air Show in 2018. “While that clearly indicates that they are thinking about this and possibly experimenting with it, we should not make the mistake of assuming the decision to use this. or even an operational capacity,” he said.

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