The new supercarrier. Photo: screen grab / CCTV / Defense Blog

China launched its first supercarrier in a short and festive June 17 ceremony at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, marking a significant milestone in the growth of its naval power. The carrier was supposed to be launched on April 23 but delays in deliveries of critical components and workforce Covid-19 quarantines hindered progress.

The new conventionally powered carrier, named the Type-003 Fujian, is estimated to displace 85,000 to 100,000 tons, and carry around 50 to 70 aircraft. This makes it the first non-US carrier to rival the US Navy’s Ford- and Nimitz-class in terms of size and displacement.

China’s first supercarrier significantly expands and steps up the Chinese navy’s capabilities from regional force projection to partial global force projection.

The Type-003 Fujian is China’s first domestically developed and constructed carrier featuring an electromagnetic launch system (EMALS), a huge step up from its previous carriers.

China’s previous carriers employed a ski ramp, which limits the types of aircraft that they could launch as well as fuel and armaments.

EMALS technology is also considered a leg up compared with traditional steam catapults, which draw superheated steam from the ship’s powerplant to launch aircraft.

An EMALS system uses powerful electromagnets to accomplish the same feat, enabling it to launch additional and heavier types of aircraft and do so faster. These aircraft may include improved variants of the J-15B, naval versions of the J-20 and FC-31, KJ-600 airborne early warning and control (AWACS) plane and drones.

EMALS is also said to be gentler on airframes, allowing China to project naval power at far greater ranges. Moreover, effective operations of China’s new carrier will largely be facilitated by China’s other advances in other areas of military technology, such as fighter aircraft, drones, logistics ships, and other naval assets.

The new carrier is believed to be a transitional design between the conventionally powered Type-001 and Type-002 carriers, on the one hand, and a planned fourth nuclear-powered supercarrier.

In February 2018, China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) said that it had started development on a nuclear-powered carrier that would help the PLA Navy “realize its strategic transformation and combat-readiness capability in deep waters and open oceans by 2025.”

Thus, the conventionally powered, EMALS-equipped Type-003 Fujian looks to be an intermediate step between the ski-ramp decks of the Type-001 Liaoning and Type-002 Shandong and EMALS-equipped nuclear supercarrier number four. 

The Type-003 Fujian may also incorporate elements from China’s earlier carrier acquisitions. In 1985, China acquired the decommissioned HMAS Melbourne light carrier from Australia. While the ship was designated to be scrapped, China showed special interest in its catapults, arrestor wires, and aircraft elevators, with its flight deck dismantled and placed ashore as a deck landing training facility for Chinese pilots.

HMAS Melbourne was reportedly still in existence in 1994 and was not scrapped until 2002.

The new carrier is also a significant departure from the two previous Chinese carrier designs, which were based on the Soviet-era Admiral Kuznetsov-class.

China’s first carrier, the Type-001 Liaoning, started life as the Varyag in Soviet service, but was never completed because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. China purchased the unfinished hulk in 1998, studied it extensively and continued work on it, and finally commissioned it in 2012.

The country’s second carrier, the Type-002 Shandong, was based on the Type-001 Liaoning but with substantial improvements, such as a larger air wing and improved radars. It is plausible that lessons learned from completing the Type-001 Liaoning and building the Type-002 have helped in the construction of the Type-003 Fujian, whose construction started in 2015.

While China could possibly match the US in sheer numbers of carriers given that it is the world’s largest shipbuilding country, China still has a long way to go in mastering carrier operations, as the US has more than a century’s worth of experience operating these advanced warships.

However, China may have less of a learning curve to overcome, as it could rely on data and observations of US carrier operations and those of other countries, as such it does not need to follow the tedious trial-and-error approach taken by aircraft-carrier pioneers such as the US.

China has embarked on an aggressive naval shipbuilding program to build six carrier battle groups by 2035 – signaling the global expansion of its security interests, its willingness to challenge longstanding US dominance in the Pacific and its efforts to keep a military option against Taiwan viable.

Also, its efforts to acquire carriers are driven by bureaucratic, nationalistic, and strategic factors.

In a bureaucratic sense, the emergence of China’s carrier program may hint at the growing influence of the Chinese navy within China’s inner political circles and the Central Military Commission. The launching of the Type-003 Fujian may have confirmed the Chinese navy’s pride of place and deepening patronage within China’s political system over the Chinese military’s other branches of service.

Nationalism is also a driver of China’s program, as carriers are potent symbols of national power and possession of these powerful warships has historically been confined to great powers. As such, China seeks to place itself in the elite club of major naval powers that operate carriers.

China’s evolving naval strategy also provides impetus to its carrier program. By 2050, China aims to become a global naval power, with a navy operating on a par with that of US. So far, the pace of China’s naval shipbuilding efforts has kept up pace with that timeline.

The country now has the world’s largest navy in terms of numbers, but the US still maintains its lead in terms of tonnage.