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.
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.
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.
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.