On June 17, the Chinese launched Fujian, their third aircraft carrier from Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. The occasion carefully timed with the Boat Festival was celebrated with much fanfare. For the Chinese, it was indeed a proud moment.
Congratulations! China launched its third aircraft carrier "#Fujian". The carrier was completely designed and built by China and is China's first domestically-made carrier that uses catapults. pic.twitter.com/shbznRtPof
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) June 18, 2022
The launch of the Fujian takes China a step closer to achieving its goal of becoming a true-blue water navy– a fundamental ingredient to replace the US from South China Sea and subsequently challenge its Sea Power. China has declared its intention to build at least six aircraft carriers by 2035.
It must be noted that Fujian is a massive technological leap by Chinese engineers, by hook or crook, in that the carrier has a catapult launch system as against China’s previous two carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, which used ski jump for short take offs. With Fujian China has leapfrogged from older less efficient steam catapult launch system to Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), by no means a small technical achievement. It positions China abreast the United States whose latest carrier USS Gerald R Ford, which uses EMALS permitting quicker successive launches and also carriage of larger payload of ammunition and fuel. However, the US Navy is yet to field this latest carrier to the frontline fleet.
Satellite images provide some details of Fujian. It is approximately 320 meters long and 73 meters wide, which makes it slightly smaller than the Gerald Ford. It has 3 EMALS catapults and two aircraft lifts between flight deck and the hangars which is one short of the American carrier.
— World's Military Forces (@Military9Army) July 8, 2022
After launch of the ship there are a large number of tests and setting to work protocols to be completed before she is put to sea for first trial sortie. Carrier will now be proven for safe mooring and functionality of the navigation system. Rest of the flooding and fire- fighting tests are mandatory for taking a new ship to sea.
As mentioned earlier, China intends to build at least 6 carriers by 2035 of which 4 are expected to be nuclear powered. Since Fujian probably has electric propulsion the next carrier will certainly be nuclear propelled.
Fujian, named after the coastal city, just like her predecessors, will project China’s maritime power initially in the South China Sea and gradually in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese have realized that their blue water ambition and competition with the US cannot be realized without credible air cover to their fleet when out in the ocean. China is imbibing the Mahanian concept of Sea Power which was very evident in their Military Strategy Paper of 2015. It said that the thought of over-bearance of military power over land needs to be abandoned. Prosperity of China’s citizens lies over the oceans and therefore China will build a strong and superior PLAN which will ensure deployment in distant oceans wherever China’s national interests dictate. China is moving from regional (near sea operations) to global sea power for which air power at sea is essential. China may have concluded that its previous understanding of A2AD may not necessarily mean the omnipresence of aircraft carriers at sea since locating them in vast oceans will remain a technological challenge. Otherwise China may not have pursued its own carrier building programme.
Navies do not go to war frequently and therefore aircraft carrier’s peacetime role in the era of geopolitical competition must not be ignored. Aircraft carriers will help China influence its neighbors in SE Asia and give a sense of close competition to the US and India. It also makes China’s intentions even more clear that it can bring to bear massive firepower in its desire to forcibly occupy Taiwan. Reunification remains a high priority agenda for the PRC.
It is understood that Chinese pilots are practicing dummy deck landings of transport type aircraft which is an indication that their eyes are also set on operation of Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) and subsequently E2C Hawkeye type AWACS aircraft from Fujian which will be greatly assisted by EMALS. This will be a very significant addition to their ability for far sea deployment and challenge the USN in their own backyard, the Pacific.
The National Security Advisor Ajit Doval while speaking at the inaugural session of the first meeting of Multi Agency Maritime Security Group (MAMSG) made a very candid suggestion which reflects the country's future course of national security capability building.
— NationalDefence (@NDIndiaFirst) June 30, 2022
He said “Earlier the ocean was for peace. The geopolitical scenario in the IOR is changing now”. He further stated “the more we develop and create assets, the more trade and commerce will increase and greater will be vulnerability and security in the maritime domain”. He added that emerging future threats will be from sea, cyber and space domains. He went on to say that “we also have certain responsibilities towards our maritime neighbours, such as in disaster management, security assistance and such other things”. “Our responsibility as a premier maritime power is extremely important” he said.
The NSA stressed that India is “destined for greater things”.
He added: “India’s time will come. We as a nation have to be strong. Coastal and maritime security will play an important role in this.”
It is in this context of India's security needs and aspirations that New Delhi has to view its maritime response to Fujian.
The Chinese will take at least 6/7 years to operationalize Fujian. There are many challenges. The major one being the onboard mechanism of the ship to generate very high electrical power which is required for generation of strong magnetic field to support launch of 30 ton fighter aircraft and quick regeneration of strong magnetic field to achieve quicker subsequent launch rate. They would certainly look at three separate power generation systems for the three EMALS catapults onboard the Fujian.
Aircraft operations as part of a carrier battle group would need much experience and confidence in handling such a large fleet of ships. While operating away from home base, particularly at night, the pilots will need to fly in a non-diversion situation in that there will be no option to return to land based airfield in an emergency but to eject. But the trajectory of their future entry into the Indian Ocean is very obvious. China’s collusion with Pakistan makes the security situation in the Arabian Sea more complex. India has thus been put on notice. NSA’s remarks have come at a very opportune moment. Govt must fill in the voids in naval armor. Naval assets have long gestation for their manufacturing and therefore timely decision and earmarking of funds are extremely essential.
To begin with fighter aircraft for to be commissioned aircraft carrier Vikrant should be selected expeditiously to replace Mig 29 K in the near future. If we have to be a “preferred security partner” for the IOR littorals then a visible power in the maritime domain is best achieved by aircraft carriers. Decision for third aircraft carrier needs to be taken now in order to have one Carrier Battle Group on either seaboard of India. This would, apart from many peacetime tasks, deter China Pakistan collusive designs. Let us remember that strategic superiority competition is a major peacetime role of the navies the world over.
The selection of strategic partners for submarine Project 75 (I) should have been done yesterday. The numbers of Anti- Submarine Warfare helicopters need to be increased to fill in the existing large void. Inclusion of laser, particle beam weapons and rail guns on surface ships for defence against hypersonic missiles, rotary wing UAVs for Destroyers and Frigates will become essential for accurate targeting of surface vessels.
The list is long since we are not only preparing our Navy against today’s PLAN but committing our nation to be a regional maritime power which has been very aptly highlighted by India’s National Security Advisor.
(Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (Retd) was the former Commander- In -Chief of the Western Naval Command & Chief of Integrated Defence Staff, Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)