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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

Fujian: China’s New Aircraft Carrier Is Important — But No Game-Changer

Fujian Aircraft Carrier
Fujian, China's new aircraft carrier. Image Credit: Chinese Internet.

This week China launched—meaning deposited in the water for the first time—its latest aircraft carrier, the Type 003. Dubbed Fujian, China’s third flattop will now undergo several years of outfitting before becoming battleworthy come 2025 or thereabouts. Fujian bulks larger than its predecessors, a refitted Soviet carrier and an upgraded, Chinese-built version of the same rudimentary design. The Type 003 is equipped with catapults—reportedly electromagnetic rather than steam-driven—and thus will be able to handle heavier-laden aircraft than her forbears, which depended on ski jumps mounted on the bow to loft warplanes skyward.

Chinese shipbuilders and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) have assayed a leap to parity with the U.S. Navy in carrier aviation. While not there yet, Fujian does feature technologies found on the latest U.S. carrier, the Ford-class, which likewise sports an electromagnetic launch and recovery system. And in terms of physical scale, the Type 003’s proportions are what you would expect from an American supercarrier, somewhere in the 80,000-100,000-ton range when toting a full complement of aircraft, crewmen, and stores and ammunition. Size matters for reasons of national pride as well as combat effectiveness. After all, China has to have the biggest and most of everything, as befits its self-appointed central status in Asia and the world.

One-upsmanship matters.

What does Fujian’s debut mean in operational and strategic terms? Well, it probably remains the case that Chinese carriers, tactical aircraft, and warships remain somewhat behind their U.S. and allied counterparts by technological measures. It’s tough to say for sure outside the classified realm, where intelligence specialists afford hostile militaries close scrutiny in hopes of gauging their capabilities. But there are no guarantees that even spooky types will get things right. After all, weapon systems are black boxes in peacetime. You can inspect the exterior of a high-tech platform, weapon, or sensor all you want, but you can’t peer within its innards to see what makes it tick. Without that option, you’re forced to estimate how capable a widget is by monitoring its performance in peacetime steaming, maneuvers, and exercises.

That means it will be some time before outsiders have more than a rough guide to how well the Type 003 would probably acquit itself in battle. Heck, PLA Navy mariners themselves will have to take the flattop, its air wing, and its escort and support ships to sea before they themselves know how, and how well, a carrier task force centered on Fujian will perform amid real-life circumstances. A ship of war—or any other engineering system, for that matter—is a hypothesis. It’s an idea transcribed to engineering and sent forth into the real world, an unsparing arbiter of what does and doesn’t work. Like any other hypothesis, China’s new aircraft carrier must be subjected to field trials to assess its worth.

Success is far from a foregone conclusion.

In fact, a hard lesson from the past two decades of U.S. naval acquisitions is that piling lots of new technologies onto a new platform—whether it’s the Ford-class carrier, the Zumwalt-class destroyer, or the Freedom- and Independence-class littoral combat ships—is asking for trouble. Chinese shipwrights are not exempt from this doleful logic, even though China’s tightly controlled press may keep their travails from going public.

Leaving aside the technological questions, Fujian will mark an important milestone for the PLA Navy once operational. Having three carriers in the inventory will assure Chinese naval overseers that they will have one at sea or ready for sea at all times, should they choose to avail themselves of this option. The U.S. Navy employs awkwardly labeled “station-keeping multipliers” to project how many U.S.-based warships of a given type the navy must maintain to keep one on foreign station. These ratios factor in the rhythm of training, upkeep, and major overhaul. The figure for carriers based on the U.S. west coast to keep one in the Western Pacific is daunting, at about six hulls per deployed hull. That’s a lot when the total fleet is just eleven hulls, not all of which are ready for sea at any given instant. But the figure for forward-deployed vessels is 1.5—meaning that if the navy stationed two flattops in, say, Yokosuka, it could keep one always on patrol without help from U.S.-based assets. Those numbers are far more manageable. As it stands, the navy supplements the one Yokosuka-based unit with another from back home to keep up a constant presence.

Judging from the American standard, the PLA Navy can soon afford to relegate its first carrier, the Type 001 Liaoning, to full-time training duty while rotating at-sea patrol time between the Type 002 Shandong and the Type 003 Fujian. That is, it can count on sustaining such a cycle so long as the fleet remains “forward-deployed” to its own backyard, namely the China seas, waters the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cares about most. That’s where the most probable battlegrounds lie. If and when the PLA Navy starts sending carrier groups to distant waters on a regular basis, it will confront the rigors implicit in U.S. Navy station-keeping multipliers. Then it might behoove CCP potentates to seek foreign basing privileges similar to those the U.S. Navy enjoys in seaports across the globe. How amenable prospective host governments would be to such arrangements remains to be seen. Local politics can confound the best ideas in naval warfare.

I personally don’t see Fujian as a game-changer in the Western Pacific, chiefly because the carrier will still face geostrategic challenges manifest in a first island chain occupied by potential foes. Until China can break the chain, its maritime prospects will remain limited. But even if I’m right about that, consider what a Fujian task force could accomplish within the first island chain, geographic space that preoccupies Beijing to this day. New capability opens new strategic vistas. For instance, Beijing could keep its shiny new carrier close to home while designating the less capable Shandong as an expeditionary carrier, to be homeported in remote reaches of the China seas. Or Chinese leaders could make Fujian itself the expeditionary carrier, on the logic that the PLA already has ample firepower to manage affairs in China’s immediate environs.

Etc.

And where might an expeditionary task force make its home? Here’s one candidate: news broke recently that Cambodia and China are improving Ream Naval Base in Cambodia, a harbor adjoining the southern recesses of the South China Sea. While Cambodian officials have vehemently denied that they will play host to Chinese ships, this could be mere prevarication on Phnom Penh’s part. Think about what a carrier group based on the Gulf of Thailand would offer Chinese naval commanders. From there they could turn rival Vietnam’s flank while taking advantage of easy access to patrol grounds where the PLA Navy, the China Coast Guard, and the maritime militia heretofore have found it difficult to maintain the constant presence a would-be maritime sovereign must maintain to enforce its rule.

Even a base capable of replenishing Chinese vessels on an occasional basis would improve Beijing’s strategic standing in the South China Sea.

Fujian

Fujian, China’s 3rd aircraft carrier. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

In short, the advent of China’s new carrier along with the trajectory of base construction in Cambodia warrants a close look from U.S. and allied intelligence analysts. They should discount comforting words out of Phnom Penh and Beijing while trying to ascertain their true intentions. One key indicator is the extent of dredging, support infrastructure, and other improvements being made at Ream. Whether the upgraded facility could accommodate deep-draft warships should be the overriding question before analysts. If it could, chances are it will.

If a genuine deep-water port is in the offing, watch out.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone. Holmes also blogs at the Naval Diplomat

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. GhostTomahawk

    June 17, 2022 at 4:12 pm

    Really? 1 US sub lying in wait. Both tubes send that hooptie down to the bottom.

    • Johnny

      June 19, 2022 at 6:14 am

      Boats like this one, no matter how big, are old tech. Subs work. But, even more effective: pinpoint accurate, long range missiles. And, drones to use as spotters. It’s a new MAD dogma for victory: Missiles And Drones.

  2. cobo

    June 17, 2022 at 5:22 pm

    A proud vessel and a wonderful addition to Davy Jones’s locker

    • Froike

      June 19, 2022 at 4:36 pm

      It’s so nice of The Red Chinese to provide Artificial Reef Material!

  3. Error402

    June 17, 2022 at 5:44 pm

    Aircraft carriers are pretty USELESS in wartime. They’re BIG FAT sitting targets for missiles and other munitions.

    Nations like INDIA, china, uk, USA still have the corroded or fossilized WW2 mentality when it comes to carriers.

    A better way for advancing naval aviation is to build aircraft landing platforms that can be easily recycled after say, ten or twenty years. Bigger, and having longer landing decks, and capable of blocking even super carriers.And always escorted by a powerful very large destroyer equipped with lasers, railguns and hyper rocket systems.

    • cerebus001

      June 18, 2022 at 12:25 am

      ?? A US carrier battle group is an integrated land, sea, subsea, air, space, cyber and intelligence system controlling an entire theater not just the ocean surface in its immediate proximity. It’s not just a floating airport, its an integrated, fully networked, warfighting system. You wont be able to surprise a carrier battle group with a missile launch. Such an attack would require significant levels of coordination and preparations that are detected well in advance. Randomly popping up and firing an anti-ship missile at one would be comical.

      • Steven Zore

        June 18, 2022 at 8:51 am

        Plus due to its construction its virtually impossible to sink, next to using a tactical nuke, plus any ballistic missile launched at it would hit ocean by the time it landed, the carrier would be gone, they move more than 35knts.

    • Eddie

      June 18, 2022 at 2:35 pm

      Another issue it that destroying a nuclear power’s aircraft carrier battle group may be seen as a causes belli for a strategic response. Any nation which took out a U.S. carrier group at a value of up to $40 Billion Dollars (including aircraft and support ships) with over 6,000 naval personnel could find itself bombed into the Stone Age.

  4. Francis Maikisch

    June 17, 2022 at 11:01 pm

    The 1st image is not the Fujian, it’s the Shandong upon launch. It has a ski jump bow. Who’s doing the edits on this website? Need help?

    • Mark Osaki

      June 18, 2022 at 4:19 pm

      Good catch.

  5. Slack

    June 18, 2022 at 12:46 am

    Carriers like shandong, fujian, etc..are very USELESS unless they are equipped with a few kalibr-M missiles onboard.

    The Kalibr-M missile has no marine (seaborne) equal. It has a hitting range of over 4,000 km, carries a massive one-ton warhead at near mach 3 speed.

    • Mario DeLosa

      June 27, 2022 at 9:04 am

      Given the stellar (make sure you note the sarcasm) performance of Russian war materiel in the Ukraine, what leads you to believe that the Kaliber is any good? Moreover, the missile is useless if you can’t put it on target. Judging by the clearly subpar abilities displayed by Russia’s sailors (Whoops! There goes the Moskva!), I would venture to say that any Russian ship that tries to employ the Kaliber is more likely to sink a bulk carrier than to hit an aircraft Carrier.

  6. Olga

    June 18, 2022 at 5:16 am

    Macron says there will be no peace if Russia is crushed, what the heck does this yellow livered French leader want Russia to win.Grow a pair of bollocks Macron get rid of the French legacy of being shall we say stand offish , Putins Scum depraved demented mitary are barbarians and need to be crushed.Did you hear a soldier in the Russian army explaining how SCUM Russian soldiers torture Ukraine captives the put barbed wire in their fingers on the have sliced them open and to the same with their Asus and pens and testicle and you don’t want to hurt poor putins feeling you are no more innocent than putin for making the remark of the Coward you are Mcron. If putin starts nuking any one UK have promised to decimate Russia so for fuck sake Macron russia is not the only STATE with nukes and Russia would be destroyed for ever if the little pig eyed TERRIRIST LEADER PUTIN HEIR HITLERS BROTHER USED A NUKE.LAVBOGG IS ANOTHER BOSS EYED CUNT CONDONES RUSSIAN ATROCITIES IF A NUKE WAR BREAKS OUT HOPE THE FIRST LANDS ON PITIN AND LOVROVS HEAD PAIR OF QUEER CUNTS.

    • Donald Link

      June 18, 2022 at 1:48 pm

      This one should probably have been sent back for a clean up.

  7. Guy White

    June 18, 2022 at 8:05 am

    It’s gonna drag it’s Bunker-C supply chain behind, like a leash. Don’t sink the warship, sink the oiler, fat, slow, dumb.

  8. R

    June 18, 2022 at 9:31 am

    Hello,
    Uhh not sure but the pictures of the carriers do not match and both are labeled as the “Fujain”?

  9. Jacksonian Libertarian

    June 18, 2022 at 11:42 am

    The “mature precision strike regime” makes all surface ships including Aircraft Carriers obsolete, as a sufficiently large barrage of guided missiles can overwhelm any defenses. The Missile Cruiser Moskva was sunk by 2 missiles.

  10. Rob Stoinoff

    June 18, 2022 at 2:06 pm

    Sorry but this article is very poorly written

  11. Eddie

    June 18, 2022 at 2:30 pm

    China faces a huge strategic problem. If she starts to deploy strategic assets around the Asia – Pacific – Indian Ocean Hemisphere, she will face a wall of opponents. India, a nuclear power is conducting a carrier building program on her own. Japan, already alarmed, and a potential nuclear power (do not rule it out if China invades Taiwan) already is planning to put F-35B’s on two new light carriers. They can easily build lighter ones. Although Korea (also building light carriers) will not be a strategic adversary to China, Russia could if China starts to covet former territory now owned by Russia. A true nightmare for China is the USA withdrawing to Hawaii and withdrawing its defense obligations to emerging economies threatened by her.

  12. mrmusterstone

    June 18, 2022 at 5:13 pm

    Good article sir.

    May I add that ships (assets) that “cannot” be lost will not be deployed. If Fujian were sunk the catastrophic loss of face for the CCP leadership would force contemplation of the next proportional step-up, nuclear strikes. To self-force oneself into such a corner would be ludicrous (Is there a Chinese word for ludicrous? Because there is no Italian word for leadership). But I digress.

  13. Rich

    June 18, 2022 at 5:26 pm

    Artificial reef in waiting.

  14. USNVO

    June 18, 2022 at 11:11 pm

    It should be noted that the top picture has a carrier with a ski jump while the lower one is a carrier without a ski jump. The conclusion is they are not the same ship, and I would postulate that the upper picture is not of the Fujian.

  15. TermLimits

    June 18, 2022 at 11:38 pm

    If ANYONE doesn’t believe the Chinese have infiltrated the military at all levels, the fact this carrier has the EMALS and electronic catapults should shake everyone to the core.
    These technologies took the US navy MANY years to invent, install and perfect. Only in 2021 were these systems accepted as fully operational on the Ford. The Chinese, as the world has learned, are the worlds premier rip offs and this is a glaring example.

  16. TermLimits

    June 18, 2022 at 11:41 pm

    The first picture is not the Fujian, but is the 002 carrier. The second pic is of the Fujian without the ski slope deck.

  17. Taamallah

    June 19, 2022 at 6:52 am

    parceque c’est la Chine qui a fabriqu ce porte avion que vous dites qu’il est moche, la chine a reussi à fabriqu 03 portes avions en 15 ans , chose que ni les francais ni les allemands n’ont fait, aussi , il faut pas negliger l’aviation russe parceque cette dernière peut quiper ce porte avion. l’occident voit toujours qu’ils ont meilleurs mais les exemples en Ukraine n’apporte pas la confirmation. Enfin si c’etait un porte avion occidental vous parles autrement.

  18. paperpushermj

    June 20, 2022 at 12:54 pm

    Somehow our Navy, not being concerned …I find concerning

    • Olga

      June 21, 2022 at 5:21 pm

      If the gruesome repulsive putin hurts Lithuania it’s good bye Russia BECAUSE AT will CRUSHrussian SCUM and fast with 4 days NATO will have annexed Russia and the Russian terror tories in their entirety will be gusumped by NATO and it will become Eurasia and Russia will become obsolete oh yes oh yes hahaha haha ah hahaha haha boot on other foot fuck face fuck Russian scum.k

  19. afhack

    June 20, 2022 at 2:25 pm

    All things being equal doesn’t apply from military to military. This at least goes double for a country trying to copy its way to great power status.

    China’s Maoist years supercharged China’s inherent militancy. Both its Maoist militancy and post-Maoist copying are present in its third carrier.

    China has never fared well against outside invaders. It should think twice and maybe thrice before taking on the role of invader

  20. David Chang

    June 21, 2022 at 3:19 am

    God bless people in the world.

    In terms of U.S. Navy’s strategy, it is impossible for PLA to destroy 7th Fleet by aircraft carrier fleet.

    In terms of U.S. Marine Corps’ strategy, PLA’s aircraft carrier is a formidable enemy.

    However, Asia socialism country, is like Ukraine, take advantage of U.S. military by promoting the invincibility of USN 7th Fleet deliberately to push the 7th Fleet fighting in brown water.

    So asymmetric warfare, or unrestricted warfare, is a thought to mislead America, and the sub-task of PLA’s aircraft carrier is a lure to the 7th Fleet.

    God bless America.

  21. Olga

    June 21, 2022 at 5:22 pm

    If the gruesome repulsive putin hurts Lithuania it’s good bye Russia BECAUSE AT will CRUSHrussian SCUM and fast with 4 days NATO will have annexed Russia and the Russian terror tories in their entirety will be gusumped by NATO and it will become Eurasia and Russia will become obsolete oh yes oh yes hahaha haha ah hahaha haha boot on other foot fuck face fuck Russian scum.k

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