Chinese aircraft carrier catapult testing in context

 22. 12. 2023      Category: Naval forces

PLA Navy recently tested the electromagnetic catapult of the newest carrier. Although this does not mean that the carrier is ready to deploy, it is a huge step for the PLA Navy. The newest aircraft carrier, called CV-18 or Fujian, will probably be the first Chinese aircraft carrier to be used for actual combat operations.

CV-18 or Type 003 Fujian is the third Chinese aircraft carrier after CV-16 Shandong and CV-17 Liaoning. It is the first aircraft carrier designed and built in the People´s Republic of China. Previous carriers were designed and built in the Soviet Union and are in the same class as the sole Russian conventionally powered aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov. For the PLA Navy (PLAN), Fujian is the first „supercarrier“ with a catapult-assisted take-off but -arrested recovery (CATOBAR) technology equipped aircraft carrier. It has a displacement of 80.000 tons. It has the electromagnetic catapult systems comparable to the newest US aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford. Fujian will probably be the first Chinese aircraft carrier to conduct actual combat operations. It will reportedly host the first Chinese stealth carrier-borne fighter jet J-35 together with the KJ-600 early warning aircraft. PLAN also considers adding armed drones to Fujian.

Picture: Chinese aircraft carrier Fujian | China Central Television
Picture: Chinese aircraft carrier Fujian | China Central Television

Type 003 will probably be followed by Type 004 aircraft carrier that will be comparable to the US aircraft carrier in both displacement and propulsion and that will probably be nuclear. The construction of the first carrier of Type 004 is reported to be underway in the near future. Electromagnetic catapult testing probably began in the second half of November. From publicly available videos and images, we can conclude that at least one test took place and the dead test-load vehicle was launched into the water.  Electromagnetic catapult testing is a clear sign of sea trials taking place in the near future. Fujian is expected to be commissioned in 2025 and is followed by more carriers in the future.

Electromagnetic catapult testing is also important due to the increased presence of the PLAN in the First and Second Island Chains. As Liu Huaqing, the so-called father of the Chinese Navy stated, there are three main milestones for the PLAN to achieve being a blue-water navy. First, by 2000, PLAN should control the First Island Chain and particularly Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea. By 2020, the PLAN should control the Second Island Chain and finally by 2050, PLAN should assume the role of the global, blue-water navy.

Construction and commissioning of Type 003 is roughly in line with what Admiral Liu Huaqing planned. Although it is highly questionable whether PLAN dominates within the Second Island Chain, PLAN regularly deploys both older aircraft carriers around Taiwan and further to the Philippine Sea towards US bases and presence.  For example, in April, the Shandong aircraft carrier sailed approximately 700 kilometres from the strategic US island of Guam, which could be one of the most valuable targets in a possible conflict between China and the United States. The ship sailed to Guam as part of the Joint Sword exercise around Taiwan. During that exercise, the Shandong aircraft carrier supported other forces and sailed close to the eastern Taiwanese coast and the Japanese southwestern territory.  Then it sailed to Guam. It was not the first deployment deep into the Philippine Sea. In December 2022, the Type 001 Liaoning aircraft carrier appeared approximately 600 kilometres from Guam. Both deployments send at least two important messages.

First, the PLAN is capable of deploying aircraft carriers for longer voyages deep into the Philippine Sea as part of supporting operations east to Taiwan. That means that China could have intentions to surround Taiwan, create at least two rings of blockade, and possibly strike from all directions. Second, PLAN is signaling their intentions to the US. PLAN intends to push the US and Japanese forces out of the Philippine Sea and the second island chain because, according to their doctrine, Taiwan is an internal matter and external actors do not have the rights to interfere in it.

Electromagnetic catapult testing also sends a message. Type 003, or Fujian aircraft carrier, will undergo sea trials in the near future and will be commissioned soon. After 2025, we could see Fujian deployed even closer to Guam or other US bases in the region and further increase pressure on US forces.

 Author: Jan Feryna