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China’s super carrier Fujian is almost ready to challenge the mighty US Navy for top spot

In Europe
May 01, 2024

It appears that the Fujian, China’s newest, biggest and most powerful aircraft carrier, is about to go to sea. With events in the gold market suggesting that Beijing may be preparing for war, just what does the advent of the Fujian on the world’s oceans mean for the balance of naval power?

Aircraft carriers are a divisive subject. To some they are the backbone of a blue water navy and provide political and scalable options in abundance, to others they are a vulnerable and expensive white elephant. Most navalists and politicians sit in the former camp, those who don’t think we need a navy beyond the English Channel and those who think the Navy is taking all their money in the latter.

Whether you are for or against, one thing is undeniable. Lots of countries who wish to operate beyond their own coastline are either in the carrier game or getting into it. The list of carrier nations today includes the US (with 11), China (2+1), Britain (2), India (2), Japan (2), Italy (2), Russia (1), France (1), Thailand (1), Spain (1), Turkey (1) and South Korea (2 planned). All these nations believe that carriers have a utility that is worth their cost.

As ever when it comes to warships, hull numbers only give part of the picture. In the list above we have the USS Gerald R Ford, America’s newest and biggest ever carrier, at one end of the scale – what most people would regard as the ultimate example of the type. At the other end there are ships such as the Thai Navy’s HTMS Chakri Naruebet which is tiny by comparison and will only ever carry helicopters.

Arguing over the difference between an aircraft carrier and a helicopter carrier doesn’t advance this debate much. Suffice it to say, there are a few on this list that you could strike off and a few you could add, such as the Australian Canberra class and the nine US Navy big-deck amphibious assault ships – not included above – that most countries would be delighted to call their carriers.

Naming conventions are never universally agreed. As a junior officer discussing the then in commission HMS Ark Royal, I was told in no uncertain terms that she was NOT an aircraft carrier, but instead a ‘through-deck cruiser’. The Royal Navy had been forbidden to have any aircraft carriers in the pre-Falklands era and had been compelled to adopt this term in order to work around its political supervision.

It’s not just the hulls themselves that determine carrier capability, you need layers in place around them. Working from out to in, the perfect carrier can both hoover in and contribute to an intelligence network that ensures you are not sailing blind. In particular it needs to have long-range surveillance radar aircraft to monitor the seas and skies for hundreds of miles around. It needs fighter jets, refuelling and jamming aircraft able to provide a 24/7 bubble around the ship. It also needs escort warships to protect it from threats below, on and above the water and ideally there will be a nuclear-powered attack submarine in the mix. The carrier group needs logistic support ships with fuel, munitions and other supplies to ensure operations can be sustained for months at sea without host nation support – in some ways this is the defining advantage of a carrier over air force bases.

The fighter jets (and uncrewed systems) need to have a mix of capabilities and be launched in such a way that ‘time on task’ and ‘weapons carried’ can both be optimised. Finally, the ship herself will have its own close-in weapons systems.

In simple terms, the more of this list you can tick off, the better your carrier capability and the more options you have to use it across a range of scenarios, from deterrence to surveillance to humanitarian aid to strike.

In this respect, for the last 30 years or so, there have been two carrier divisions; the US Navy and everyone else. The French Navy’s Charles de Gaulle comes as close as any carrier in the world to matching an American one but there is only one of her so she is routinely not available when needed. She also costs a fortune and needs a lot of people. French politicians love her, the French Navy hates her.

The Royal Navy’s two carriers do some of it well but have blanks against enough of ‘the list’ not to be considered A-team. I’m a fan, but if you spend just over three billion pounds per ship (research and build) – with a big chunk of that accounted for by deliberately slowing the build down – it’s not reasonable to compare them to the Ford class costing 17.3 billion dollars each, although it’s surprising how many try. Less understandable, however, was the politicking and inter-service bickering during the carriers’ gestation resulting in an endless stream of compromise as elements of ‘the list’ were struck off due to misunderstanding, skewed recommendations, lack of money or just to ensure they were built at all.

The question for today, though, is can the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) cross the gaping divide and join the US Navy in top-tier carrier operations with all the implications that would have for the security picture in the Indo-Pacific and beyond?

Two Chinese carriers are already operational. The Liaoning is a retired Soviet Kuznetsov-class carrier transferred to the PLAN in 2012 and has been in limited use ever since. Hull 2, the Shandong, was commissioned in 2019 and built solely in China. Based on the Kuznetsov, Shandong has been used on increasingly complex operations in recent years although rarely straying too far from the South China Sea.

And now we have the third carrier, the Fujian. Based on harbour movements and navigational warnings over the last few days, she is likely to start sea trials as early as tomorrow. Fujian is a step up again. At 300m long and displacing 80,000 tons she is not quite USS Ford size (337m and over 100,000 tons) although visually it is clear where the inspiration came from.

The critical step up that – if it works – will make Fujian a first-division carrier is that she has catapults. Only US carriers and the Charles de Gaulle have these today. Catapults mean that a ship can launch her jets fully armed and fuelled for combat. The Shandong and Liaoning’s planes must get airborne under their own power using a ski-jump ramp, meaning that they can’t carry as much fuel and weaponry as they normally would. Britain and other US allies use the F-35B jump jet: this is likewise limited on fuel and weapons due to the weight and bulk of its vertical thrust equipment.

Interestingly, the Fujian has electromagnetic catapults like the USS Ford (although Ford has four catapults vs the Fujian’s three and can therefore generate a higher sortie rate). Amazingly, electric cats were first tested way back in 1946 (called the ‘Electropult’) but have only been put into service so far by the US Navy in the last five years, at vast expense and with teething troubles which caused delays in the Ford class being declared operational. China has managed construction, to launch, to trials in this first-of-class ship in little over eight years. Fujian is a long way from being declared operational – those trials come next – but it is still impressive.

The one thing the Chinese ship doesn’t have is nuclear propulsion. I’m not so sure this is important, however. Most of the gains in speed and endurance are offset by needing to take on aviation fuel periodically anyway, and the need not to leave your tankers and escorts behind. So you can do unlimited sprints but no one around you can. Add to this the design and build costs and the requirement to train and run a new engineering enterprise within your surface fleet and you can see why the PLAN has left this out…for now. Hull 4 is being promised – it will be interesting to see what powers that.

Once Fujian is declared fully operational the PLAN will certainly have enough logistics ships, escorts, submarines and jets to conduct global operations with her. Jetties built to suit her in Djibouti and Cambodia over the last couple of years suggest that this will happen. But even if you have all the items on ‘the list’ you still have to be able to operate them well, far from home and without support. The Royal Navy managed a global carrier deployment in 2021 but had some help from allies and dug deep into many a support service to do so – it’s a good thing HMS Queen Elizabeth didn’t have to fight on that occasion. The Royal Navy’s next carrier excursion in 2025 will be much better, but once again, it is only the USN that can do this comprehensively without assistance. For now.

So how do the various carriers stack up?

You have to say that a current US carrier group would have a decided edge over a future, fully operational Fujian. The American ship would have more aircraft and probably somewhat better ones, though neither side would have a fully fifth-generation air group. There would be various things in the escort group that China doesn’t yet have, too: in particular the US nuclear submarine would be a generation ahead of its Chinese opponent in acoustic stealth.

In second place would come the Fujian and her group. She’s bigger than the Charles De Gaulle and would have at least some fifth-generation jets: France has none of these. A fully worked up and working Fujian would mean that China had taken a big step towards joining the US in the first division.

I’d not especially scientifically put the Charles De Gaulle and a British carrier in joint third place. The French ship has catapults, but on the other hand the British F-35B is fifth-generation, unlike France’s Rafale M carrier fighter. The two nations are fairly evenly matched in most other naval attributes, though the British side would probably be a bit stronger in anti-submarine warfare thanks to Merlin Mk 2 helicopters.

The rest of the pack would be led by those nations able to fly jets from their ships rather than just helicopters: Japan, Italy, Russia and India for instance.

At the moment, then, there are two tiers of carrier operators: the US Navy and everyone else. Realistically, China is the only country with both the money and ambition to close this gap. If sea trials on the Fujian do start imminently, then that is a decent step down this road and given how fast they have got here from a near standing start, one to watch closely.

Tom Sharpe is a former Royal Navy officer

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