Naval Air: The Growing Chinese Carrier Force

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July 18, 2022: A month ago China formally launched and named its third aircraft carrier, the 80,000-ton Fujian (CV-18). China confirmed that the Fujian is powered by steam turbines that generate the needed electrical power for its EMALS (electromagnetic aircraft launch system) in a conventionally powered carrier. Satellite photos had earlier shown that Fujian has three EMALS catapults. Fujian turned out to be larger than expected, in part because of the space needed for the IEP (integrated electric propulsion) system that supplied the power for EMALS. The only other carrier using EMALS is the American nuclear-powered USS Ford. China was more deliberate in designing their EMALS system and appears to have learned from the mistakes the Americans made.

At 300 meters (984 feet) Fujian appears to be nearly as long as the 333-meter Ford, which displaces about 100,000 tons. Fujian has a smaller crew and operates fewer aircraft. Because it is nuclear powered the Ford moves at higher speeds for sustained periods than the Fujian, which has to dedicate a lot of internal space for fuel. Fujian is expected to be ready for sea-trials by the end of 2022 and enter service in 2023 or 2024,

China already has two carriers in service; Liaoning (CV-16) and the similar Shandong (CV-17), which completed sea trials and entered service at the end of 2019, as it was seen moving past Taiwan. Back then it was assumed that China wanted to build two more similar carriers (CV-18 and 19) which would lose the ski jump deck and instead adopt a catapult. This was the case with Fujian (CV-18) that was already under construction in 2019, and in the water a year later. At that point it appeared that CV-18 would be in service by 2024 but details of its layout and displacement were still vague.

It was believed that CV-18 might be delayed by the decision to use EMALS instead of steam catapults. The U.S. Navy has had problems getting its EMALS to work effectively and the Chinese were believed to be waiting to see how that works out before deciding. That was not the case as CV-18 was built with the IEP, which was only required if EMALS was used. What is unknown is if CV-19 will be similar to CV-18 or use nuclear-power. China has more problems with nuclear-powered surface ships than with EMALS. China has been working on nuclear propulsion for submarines for decades and encountered lots of technical problems that seriously limited the development of an effective Chinese nuclear submarine force. Chinese nuclear power experts informed the government that China did not yet have reliable nuclear power plants for surface ships and it would be a while before that technology was perfected.

With the official recognition of Fujian, it became clear that China probably would have five or six non-nuclear-powered carriers by 2030, with all but two of them based on the Fujian.

Since carriers spend a lot of time in port getting upgrades and maintenance, you need three or more in order to guarantee having at least two available at all times for operations. China has already built or is building enough escort and support ships, along with air wings, to keep several carrier task forces, each built around one carrier, busy while one or more carriers were sidelined by months of maintenance and upgrades. China announced in 2020 that their first carrier, a rebuilt Russian carrier, would not remain a training carrier but would be equipped and manned with a crew that would enable it to also serve as a combat carrier in an emergency.

Fujian was not a complete surprise. As early as 2014 there were official photos of carrier model displayed at an official event. The detailed model had the hull number 18 and the ship looked similar to an American Nimitz class CVN. The Chinese CVN has four catapults and three elevators and much other evidence of being nuclear and very similar to the Nimitz class. This was an early Chinese Navy proposal for a CVN and that has apparently been refined to something that is similar to the Nimitz.

At one point it was believed that the first Chinese CVN would be more like the American USS Enterprise (CVN 65). This was the first American nuclear-powered carrier and it served as the prototype for the subsequent Nimitz class. The Enterprise was an expensive design, and only one was built, rather than the expected class of six. While a bit longer than the later Nimitz class, it was lighter (92,000 tons displacement, versus 100,000 tons). The Enterprise was commissioned in 1961, almost 40 years after the first U.S. carrier (the Langley) entered service in 1923. CVN 65 was active until 2012 and decommissioned in early 2017, two months before the second Chinese carrier was launched. China may end up going that way before building their first nuclear carrier. A large oil-fueled carrier would enable them to gain experience with a large carrier and allow designers to perfect the design of a nuclear-powered large carrier.

Chinese are keen students of history, their own as well as that of others. Chinese ship designers know all about the Langley and the Enterprise. The Chinese are also well aware that in the two decades after the USS Langley there were tremendous changes in carrier aviation. While the innovation slowed after World War II, major changes continued into the 1950s (jet aircraft, nuclear-propulsion, anti-aircraft missiles). But in the ensuing half-century, there has been no major innovation in basic carrier design. This has not been a problem because the carriers have proven useful, at least for the U.S. Navy, the only fleet to use such large carriers. Currently the United States has 11 CVNs, although that may shrink to ten because of problems getting the Ford class operational.

No one else has maintained a force of these large carriers. Only the U.S. has felt a constant need to get air power to any corner of the planet in a hurry. More importantly, no navy has been able to give battle to the U.S. carrier force since 1945. The Soviets built new anti-carrier weapons and made plans to use them but that war never occurred. China is building carriers but does not yet seem committed to having a lot of them to confront the U.S., but rather just a few to intimidate its neighbors.

The Chinese Navy is very popular with most Chinese and its commanders are enthusiastic about expanding in order to protect the seaborne trade that the modern Chinese economy depends on. For thousands of years Chinese rulers did not consider naval power important because it wasn’t. Now it is and the navy is getting the money and encouragement to do what China has never done before. But at the moment Chinese tech is not up to the task of providing capable carrier aviation, especially on a large scale. The government also realized that the money required to make it all work was not really available either. Another problem is the shrinking number of qualified Chinese willing to join the navy. The Chinese working age population is declining as a result of the “one-child” policy that began in the 1980s and lasted for three decades. But when the one-child limits were eased in the last decade it was discovered that a more affluent Chinese population was not interested in having large families. This is a common pattern, especially in the newly affluent nations of East Asia. Already South Korea and Japan are suffering from falling birth rates. It's worse in Europe. The United States has avoided this problem so far but that appears to be changing. For China the population problem is a major limit to the effectiveness of their growing navy and its aircraft carrier component. A carrier does not operate alone, but requires several destroyers and frigates as escorts, along with supply and fuel ships. Each carrier task force requires over 5,000 officers and sailors.

The sea trials for Shandong, China’s second aircraft carrier took 19 months, which is six months longer than their first carrier, Liaoning. There was no official explanation why the second carrier took longer to debug but it was put into active service by December 2019. It is known that Shandong has more electronics, including a powerful AESA (flat panel phased array) radar and a more capable communications and control system built into the ship. It would not be surprising if those improvements caused unexpected and repeated problems.

Shandong is 315 meters (1,033 feet) long, which is three percent longer than Liaoning. Shandong displaced 75,000 tons, which is 12 percent more than Liaoning. Obvious differences are a slightly (about 10 percent) smaller control tower and about ten percent more flight deck area. There is more space internally for maritime and aircraft fuel. It appears that Shandong would have to be refueled about once a week when at sea and Fujian will be no different.

Shandong was considered a new design but based on the first Chinese carrier, the Liaoning. That first carrier was a 65,000-ton, 305 meter (999 feet) long ship that was itself a modified version of the last Cold War Russian carrier design. In 2016 China confirmed that Shandong would also have the ski jump deck like Liaoning, would be somewhat heavier, and incorporate new design features that would enable it to carry more aircraft (mainly the J-15) in a larger hangar deck (just below the flight deck) as well as more fuel and aircraft weapons. Photos of Shandong under construction revealed that it also incorporated design features that will make it more capable of surviving combat damage as well as operating more efficiently and effectively as a carrier.

In addition to the Chinese built J-15 fighter, the Shandong had an early-warning radar and anti-submarine aircraft, which had long been standard on American carriers, as well as some helicopters, The carrier itself had modern radars and electronics to detect and control aircraft. Shandong operates about 20 percent more aircraft than Liaoning (50 fixed-wing and helicopters compared to about 40). In 2019 China only had about fifty carrier qualified J-15 pilots and Liaoning was kept busy being what was designed for; a training carrier.

 


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