Are Chinese Aircraft Carriers a Big Threat?

One of them, the Fujian, could be a serious contender in future

4 mins read
Liaoning [File Photo]

China is devoting a great effort in building aircraft carriers.  It has already deployed two conventionally powered carriers, the Liaoning Type 001 (60,000 tons) and the Shandong Type 002 (65,000 tons).  China also is building a much larger aircraft carrier, the Fujian Type 003 weighing 80,000 tons.  It was so important that Xi Jinping, the President of China, initially wanted it named after himself.   

The Fujian project itself is significant not only because of its military value but principally because it is a high prestige project, making China “equal” to the United States.

Both the Liaoning (an updated Russian-aircraft carrier hull based on Russia’s Kuznetsov aircraft carrier (which the Russians call a cruiser), and the Shandong, an improved copy of the Liaoning, have a ski jump style carrier deck for launching aircraft.  The only fighter aircraft that China has capable of operating on these carriers is the J-15 Flying Shark.  The J-15 is a knock-off of a Ukrainian copy of the Russian Su-33, itself a strengthened and heavier version of the Su-27.  The J-15 cannot carry a full load of weapons or filled fuel tanks when operating from these carriers because the aircraft would be too heavy for launch from the carrier deck.  The Russians have already lost at least two Su-33’s from the Kuznetsov, one while operating off the coast of Syria.

Russia also has a second aircraft it can use on its carriers, the MIG-29KR.  One of these also went into the sea in the Syrian operation.

India operates two aircraft carriers, INS Vikrant and INS Vikramaditya.  The Vikramaditya uses the Russian MIG-29K and is based on the old Russian Kiev-class design.  The Vikrant is planned to use the Rafale M aircraft, although it might also end up with the MIG-29K.

China does not have the MIG-29K.  The J-15 Tiger Shark, although it has been improved, renders both the operational Chinese carriers limited in capability and value.

The US Marines for their amphibious assault ships like the USS Wasp (LHD-1) and the British for their new aircraft carriers (HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales) use the Lockheed F-35B STOVL (short take off, vertical landing) stealth fighter jet.  These ships do not have launch systems or arresting wires for landing.

Like the US Marines, Japan operates two Izumo-class aircraft carriers, the JS Kaga and the JS Izumo. These are being upgraded to support the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.  The Kaga requires extensive modifications, so it will be some time before either of these ships can operate with the F-35B.

For the Fujian, China is betting it can come up with a truly flexible carrier that can launch modern fighter jets such as China’s FC-31 stealth fighter.  But China also has taken a significant risk in going for an EMALS (Electromagnetic Aircraft launch system) launcher.

The USS Ford faced a number of problems getting its EMALS to work reliably and recent reports say it still is encountering difficulty.

EMALS offers the advantage of being able to cycle more quickly than a steam catapult, and to take up less space internally since the steam pipes and special boilers for it are not needed for EMALS.

China may be having similar problems.  The initial EMALS for the Fujian was based on alternating current and high voltage (most likely copying the US Ford design).  Apparently, it did not work and has been replaced with a home-designed medium voltage direct current system. 

The USS Ford’s EMALS uses a linear induction motor and alternating current. The EMALS’s 300-foot (91 m) LIM can accelerate a 100,000-pound (45,000 kg) aircraft to 130 knots (240 km/h; 150 mph).

Photos of the Fujian show the deck covered with three structures to hide the work on EMALS. The latest reports from social media, based on photos taken from commercial aircraft taking off from Pudong Shanghai airport and overflying Changxing island where the Fujian is located at the Jiangnan shipyard, show that testing of EMALS has begun. 

Should China be successful with EMALS it will be moving forward to reaching its goal.  Nonetheless, some estimate that the Fujian could be four years away from being operationally ready.

Evaluation

China also has plans for a fourth carrier that will be nuclear. That is some years away because China has yet to design a nuclear reactor big enough for a large carrier.  For example, the USS Ford uses two A1B nuclear reactors designed and manufactured by Bechtel.  China uses small nuclear power plants for its submarines, but it does not have large enough reactors for a carrier.

The real question for all modern aircraft carriers is survivability.  Right now, both operational Chinese aircraft carriers carry only a small number of aircraft that cannot fly long distances or carry heavy weapons’ loads.  Those aircraft are vulnerable to modern air defense systems, such as AEGIS on US destroyers and cruisers or land-based air defenses. Both carriers are limited in range and can’t operate very far from home and are easy targets for modern cruise missiles and torpedoes.

The Fujian promises to be a far more capable platform and will have installed offensive systems, even reportedly a rail gun. It will initially operate with the J-15B, an upgraded version of the J-15 with modern avionics, a stealth paint job, and other improvements.  Fujian could carry as many as 40 fighter aircraft along with an AWACS aircraft.  Later it will get fighter jets like the FC-31.

The main limit on Fujian is its powerplant, limiting its range and staying power at sea.  Like the other Chinese carriers, it will be vulnerable to antiship missiles, cruise missiles and torpedoes.

A question that applies just as much to the Ford as to the Fujian is just how much of an electromagnetic signature is generated by EMALS.  It could make this class of carriers vulnerable to anti-radiation weapons, even smart glide bombs. 

Once Fujian goes to sea it will be a key addition to the growing Chinese naval fleet.  How China will deploy it in operation and what its main security tasks are, remain to be determined.

Stephen Bryen

Stephen Bryen is a former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense and is a leading expert in security strategy and technology. Bryen writes for Asia Times, American Thinker, Epoch Times, Newsweek, Washington Times, the Jewish Policy Center and others.

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