As expected, the new Chinese aircraft carrier, dubbed CV-18 Fujian, was launched this Friday in Shanghai, marking a new stage in the industrial and operational evolution of the People's Liberation Army Navy. Beyond the undeniable industrial success for Beijing, which will have launched in less than 12 years 3 aircraft carriers of increasing technology and tonnage, the Fujian constitutes a key asset for the Chinese Navy in its showdown in the making with the US Navy and its allies, offering several major advances in the capabilities that will be available to the Chinese military and industrialists in the years to come, ranging from integrated electric propulsion opening the way to nuclear propulsion, to an extended carrier air group comparable to that available to the super aircraft carriers of the US Navy.
Largest non-US military ship in history
With Fujian, the Chinese Navy now stands out as the only competitor of the US Navy on the oceans. Indeed, the new Chinese aircraft carrier, with a length of 320 meters and an estimated tonnage of between 80.000 and 100.000 tons, is none other than the most imposing non-American warship ever built, with measurements comparable to those of the carriers. -aircraft of the Kitty Hawk class, the last conventionally powered aircraft carriers of the US Navy, the last unit of which was withdrawn from service in 2005 (2007 for the USS Kennedy subclass). While the CV16 Liaoning and the CV17 Shandong, launched in 2011 and 2017 respectively, with a tonnage of 65.000 tons, were equivalent to the Russian Kuznetsov, whose architecture they share, just like the British HMS Queen Elizabeth II and HMS Prince of Wales, the CV18 Fujian outclasses by more than 30% for the tonnage these buildings which were to date the most imposing military ships except those implemented by the US Navy. In addition, it displays a tonnage twice as large as that of the only other non-American aircraft carrier equipped with catapults on the planet, the French Charles de Gaulle and its 42.000 tons.
Such dimensions show that the Chinese naval industry has now reached a degree of competence that comes close to American know-how in this field, these being close to those of the USS Enterprise CVN-65, the first propulsion aircraft carrier nuclear to have joined the US Navy in 1961, who left the service in 2017 and who was notably one of the heroes of the first opus of the film Top Gun. What's more, the Fujian is not simply imposing, it is also very modern, including, for example, an integrated electric propulsion and a system of 3 catapults and electromagnetic arresters comparable to those fitted to the brand new class of doors. -US Navy aircraft, the USS Ford. It will be, as such, particularly interesting to observe the time that will be necessary to complete the ship, and to declare it operational, as well as the time observed to build and launch the probable second unit of the class. It only took 3 years for the Chinese shipyards to launch the Shandong, while it took more than 10 years to relaunch the Liaoning after its acquisition from Russia.
An integrated electric propulsion ready for nuclear power
The naval industrial strategy applied by Beijing is, as we know, very methodical, and each new class is enriched by the achievements of the previous one, whether in the industrial or operational field, in a very short dynamic. Thus, it would have been easier for the Chinese engineers to equip the Fujian with a traditional propulsion system, and steam catapults, but by choosing an integrated electric propulsion and electromagnetic catapults, the Chinese engineers are obviously preparing the imminent arrival of a new class of nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, designated Type 004, which can be estimated to enter service between the beginning and the middle of the next decade. Indeed, unlike traditional propulsion in which the power of the engines is directly transmitted to the propeller shafts, an integrated electric propulsion is based on turbines producing significant electrical power supplying all the ship's systems, as well as the electric motors. that propel the ship.
It is, in fact, an architecture very close to that used on nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, in which nuclear boiler rooms replace thermal engines, while freeing up numerous fuel storage spaces, producing the electrical energy necessary for the propulsion but also for the ship's systems, including the catapults and the electromagnetic stop lines. In other words, the technological choices applied to Fujian perfectly prepare the arrival of the future class of nuclear-powered super aircraft carriers for both shipyards and the Chinese navy. It is interesting, in this respect, to note that Beijing applies a technological progression close to that applied by the US Navy over the past 60 years in the design of its aircraft carriers, while applying it over a period of time twice reduced, and this without benefiting from external technological or operational support, which constitutes, in itself, a real feat.
Doubled operational capacities
However, the Fujian, and its probable sister-ship which will enter service around 2027, are in no way simple technological demonstrators. Like Liaoning and Shandong, the new Chinese aircraft carrier will serve both to train and acquire industrial and operational experience, and to significantly strengthen the operational capabilities available to the Chinese Admiralty. Thus, with its 3 electromagnetic catapults and its flight deck more than 35% larger than those of its predecessors, the Fujian will be able to support an operational activity twice as important, with 80 to 120 air rotations estimated, as that supported by Liaoning or Shandong which, with their springboard, cannot perform more than 40 to 60 aerial rotations per day, at best. In addition, thanks to the electromagnetic catapults, the devices launched by Fujian will be able to carry more payload on takeoff, while consuming less fuel during this maneuver.
In fact, like the American aircraft carriers of the Nimitz and Ford class, but also to a lesser extent the French Charles de Gaulle, Fujian will be able to sustain a high-intensity power projection campaign, bringing the operational equivalent of an air wing in the theater of operations, where its predecessors can only produce the equivalent of a combat squadron. However, it will take some time for Chinese sailors and pilots to fully exploit these new capabilities, as has been the case for the US and French navies over the years.
A homogeneous and exhaustive Onboard Air Group and Naval Action Group
Like a very fashionable paradigm at the moment, an aircraft carrier must be considered not as a weapon system, but as a system of systems, in which the ship itself does not constitute an element, certainly particularly imposing, but of which the planes, helicopters and drones are also key components. Here again, the Fujian will mark a profound change in Chinese operational capabilities, since its on-board air group will be much more imposing and homogeneous than those of the two previous aircraft carriers. In addition to the greater number of aircraft used, 40 to 50 against twenty, Fujian will indeed be able to implement much more diversified aircraft, beyond the J-15 and Z-8 which arm Liaoning and Shandong. . Thus, the ship will implement the new medium stealth attack fighter J-35 under development, and close, in the spirit if not in the performances which remain unknown to date, of the American F-35C, as well as the KJ-600 advanced air surveillance aircraft, an Awacs-type device very much inspired, it seems, by the E-2 Hawkeye which arms American and French aircraft carriers.
The J-15 heavy fighter, which already equips Chinese springboard aircraft carriers, will also arm the Fujian carrier air group, in a version specially developed to use electromagnetic catapults and designated J-35T, including a comparable electronic warfare version. to the American EA-18G Growler is also in development. Finally, everything suggests that Fujian will implement combat drones, even if we do not know to date what their exact missions will be and the models developed. Thus, following the example of the Nimitz and the American Ford, the Fujian will have a global and homogeneous on-board air group, offering to respond to the entire spectrum of operational capabilities expected for this type of vessel.
Finally, the Fujian will integrate into an entirely new naval action group, or Task Force, which is much more efficient than those which operate to date. The aircraft carrier will evolve under the protection of a particularly robust escort composed of Type 055 heavy destroyers, Type 52DL anti-aircraft destroyers, Type 054A anti-submarine frigates and Type 093 and the future Type 095, modern ships, very well equipped and armed, and whose performance no longer has much to envy their most advanced Western counterparts, offering the Chinese Naval Action Group close combat capabilities those available to the US Navy Task Forces, at least once the Chinese sailors have acquired the experience required to make the best use of these units.
As we can see, if the arrival of Liaoning and then Shandong had already considerably changed the balance of power in the Pacific, the launch of the CV-18 Fujian suggests an evolution that is at least as important, qualitatively as quantitatively, in this theater of operations. Moreover, it seems obvious that the new aircraft carrier is part of a strategy to provide the Chinese navy with nuclear-powered aircraft carriers comparable to those in service with the US Navy within less than a year. ten years, while acquiring the operational experience required to make the best use of these monsters of the seas. Clearly, Beijing does not lose itself in sterile conjectures as to the supposed vulnerability of these ships, and intends to equip itself with them as soon as possible, so as to be able to stand up to the US Navy in the Pacific if necessary and in the Indian Ocean.
Still, the most amazing thing about this trajectory is none other than the extraordinary planning implemented by Beijing. Indeed, it is clear that the Fujian, which will probably enter service in 2024, will arrive jointly with the J-15T and D, the J-35 and the KJ-600 which will make up its on-board air group, while the country provides a significant effort to increase the number of pilots and technicians trained by this deadline, and that the ships which will form the escort of the aircraft carrier within the naval action group will also have completed their training and climb cycles in power. In other words, and as was the case for the J-15, Type 52D destroyers and Type 054 frigates vis-à-vis Liaoning, all the components of this force will arrive simultaneously in service, with trained staff and established procedures. It is probably the excellence of this planning (contrary to Russia for example), in contrast to the difficulties encountered in this area in Europe and across the Atlantic, which should most worry Western strategists regarding China.