As Fujian begins sea trials, Chinese Navy halfway to goal of 6 aircraft carriers by 2035

On June 17, 2022, the Jiangnan shipyards launched the third aircraft carrier intended for the Chinese Navy. It was the largest Chinese military ship, but also the largest non-American military ship in history.

This new ship brought together a considerable number of innovations for the Chinese navy and industry, including the carriage of catapults, which are electromagnetic, rather than a Skijump. It is therefore hardly surprising that it was necessary to wait almost two years for the ship to begin its sea trials, whereas only one year was necessary for the Shandong, the second Chinese aircraft carrier and the first to be manufactured exclusively national.

According to the Chinese press, the Fujian has just started its sea trials on April 30, just a few days after the Chinese Navy celebrated its 75th anniversary, paving the way for the entry into service of this ship, and its onboard air group, likely to change the balance of naval power in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

The Fujian aircraft carrier, a considerable technological and operational step for the Chinese Navy

However, the Fujian has little in common with the first two Chinese aircraft carriers, derived from the Russian Kuznetsov class. If the three ships are similar in length, 305 m for the Liaoning, 315 m for the Shandong and 316 m for the Fujian, the new ship is considerably more imposing, with an estimated displacement of more than 85 tonnes, compared to 000 to 67 000 tonnes for the two previous ships.

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It also has a much larger flight deck and more spacious aircraft hangars, making it possible to increase the fleet of aircraft on board to reach 50 aircraft, compared to 20 to 25 on those which precede it. It will also be able to double the number of daily aviation maneuvers, to reach 80 rotations per day, in part thanks to the three EMALS catapults which equip the ship.

The Fujian is powered by full electric propulsion, differentiating energy production, on the one hand, from propulsion by electric turbines, on the other. This solution makes it possible to free up space in the hull, to better manage the production of energy and electricity on board the ship, but also to anticipate the next stage targeted for Chinese aircraft carriers, in this case, propulsion. nuclear.

An onboard air group modeled on that of American aircraft carriers

In the air domain, Fujian will be equipped with a completely renewed air group, much more efficient than the J-15 and Z-8 which arm Chinese aircraft carriers today. This will, in fact, use the new J-35, an aircraft considered to belong to the 5th generation of combat aircraft, as well as the J-15T, a multi-purpose two-seater version of the current J-15. If the Z-8 will remain the heavy maneuvering helicopter aboard the aircraft carrier, it will also carry the new Z-20 helicopter, inspired by the American Sea Hawk.

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However, the biggest development in Fujian's embarked air group will undoubtedly be the new KJ-600 advanced aerial surveillance device. Close in appearance and function to the US Navy's Grumman E-2D Hawkeye, it will considerably increase the detection capabilities of the Chinese Carrier Strike Group, especially as it will be able to rely on more efficient fighters, in air-air as in air-surface or air-ground.

A fleet of escorts in evolution and rapid expansion

Finally, in terms of escort, Fujian will be able to benefit from the protection of new versions of the Type 055 heavy destroyers, Type 052DL anti-aircraft destroyers and Type 054B anti-submarine frigates.

These ships have enhanced detection capabilities, compared to previous ships, as well as new munitions, whether in terms of anti-surface warfare, air warfare, anti-submarine warfare and land strikes.

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Remember that in recent years, shipyards have launched between eight and ten new destroyers and new frigates per year, intended for the Chinese Navy. Furthermore, the gap in operational potential between Chinese and Western naval units has been considerably reduced in twenty years, so that it is risky, today, to count on a hypothetical technological ascendancy as a military multiplier coefficient, for these surface units.

The Fujian, an aircraft carrier with a decisive role in the evolution of the Chinese Navy

We understand, in fact, the immense step that will be taken by the Chinese Navy, when Fujian, its Carrier Strike Group and its embarked air group, will be operational. Beyond the tests which begin today, and which aim to verify the proper functioning of all of the ship's on-board systems, it will still take several years for the crews, pilots and maintenance personnel to be able to implement with effectiveness of this set.

Here again, Fujian will play a decisive role for the future of Chinese naval air power. As Fujian did from 2017, this will, in fact, serve as a training platform, as well as experimentation, to acquire the operational experience necessary to implement this formidably effective, but incredibly complex, represented by an aircraft carrier and its ensemble of aircraft and escort ships.

Beijing aims for a fleet of 6 operational aircraft carriers in 2035

Indeed, according to the Chinese site scmp.com, which is known to be close to the CCP and the PLA, Beijing wants to have, by 2035, a fleet of six operational aircraft carriers. A few weeks ago, we mentioned, in this regard, the converging reports concerning the construction of the 4th aircraft carrier in China.

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Obviously, the Chinese authorities do not intend to slow down the pace in the years to come. Indeed, to line up 6 aircraft carriers in 2035, it will be necessary to launch a new aircraft carrier every three years, a particularly sustained pace, even for Chinese shipyards.

Furthermore, if it is possible that the fourth aircraft carrier will be, like the Fujian, a ship with full electric propulsion, as the Shandong was a ship very close to the Liaoning, there is little doubt that the next two will be, them, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, probably as imposing as the US Navy's Ford-class ships.

To maintain this pace, and face the immense difficulties of forming three new crews, including at least two nuclear ones, training them, and giving them the necessary hardening to be effective, and doing the same for on-board naval aviation and the fleet escort, the Chinese Navy will have to make considerable efforts in the next 10 years.

Towards a strict balance between the US Navy and the Chinese Navy in 2049

However, if it succeeds, and there is little objective reason to doubt it, considering the progress made over the last 10 years, the Chinese Navy will have, in the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, a naval aviation fleet numerically comparable to that of the overpowering US Navy. This is a scenario that seemed unimaginable just ten years ago, yet today seems more than likely, if not certain.

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It is also appropriate to place this planning in line with the official Chinese discourse which aims to be on par militarily with Washington, by the centenary of the creation of the People's Republic of China, in 2049. However, by respecting a pace of 1 new aircraft carrier every 3 years, the Chinese Navy will have the same 11 operational aircraft carriers in 2049 as those planned by the US Navy.

We must therefore expect that the Chinese fleet of aircraft carriers, and with it, that of surface escorts, submarines, large amphibious ships and logistics ships, as well as the Chinese naval aviation, will continue to evolve forcefully in the years to come, to fully challenge American naval supremacy, inherited from the Second World War, in the twenty years to come.

Article from April 30 in full version until July 23

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