China launched its third and most advanced aircraft carrier on Friday as Beijing races to catch up with US military capabilities and follow through on its threats to retake Taiwan by force if necessary.
The vessel, named Fujian after the coastal province across from Taiwan, had been under construction at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard since 2018.
It will narrow the gap in the Chinese carrier fleet to its more established US counterparts and is expected to enter in service at the end of next year or in 2024.
The Fujian was scheduled to launch on June 3, according to analysts and media. But the date slipped due to the Covid outbreak in Shanghai and the two-month lockdown.
“The resumption of work after the pandemic measures was slower than expected and there was a shortage of workers,” said a Chinese military scholar, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media on the subject. “Equipment for additional post-launch gear was also not fully in place.”
The Fujian is the first Chinese aircraft carrier to be entirely designed and manufactured in the country. The Liaoning, the first aircraft carrier, is a renovated hull purchased from Ukraine and the Shandong was built in China but based on its plan.
PLA Navy aims to have six aircraft carriers by 2035, compared to US Navy’s fleet of 11 ships, according to writings by PLA scholars and mentions in Chinese state media .
The Shandong underwent almost a year of construction work after her launch in April 2017 and another 17 months of sea trials before her commissioning.
Fujian’s equipment and sea trials could take even longer, analysts said, but stressed it was more advanced. The first two carriers have ski jumpers, an outdated design that cannot launch heavier aircraft and limits the amount of weapons fighters taking off from it can carry. The new ship is equipped with an electromagnetic catapult, corresponding to the latest innovations of the US Navy.
“The [People’s Liberation Army Navy] will face challenges in the transition from [jumps] to the most demanding [catapult] carrier operations, and this could delay achieving operational capability with the new ship,” according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank. “It may also face starting problems similar to those encountered by the United States when introducing electromagnetic catapults.”
China has been building its ships faster than Western observers expected, but its progress in deploying them has not been as rapid.
“It sends a great signal when the third carrier is launched, but the problem is that you have to equip it and operate it,” said Meia Nouwens, PLA expert at IISS. “Liaoning is still exercising the constitution of a carrier battle group nearly 10 years after it was handed over to the PLA Navy.”
Analysts say the PLA Navy’s most difficult challenge is the lack of qualified sailors and lack of suitable aircraft.
“Their biggest problem is that they don’t have enough staff,” said Hsu Yen-chi, a researcher at the Council on Strategic and Wargaming Studies think tank in Taipei, and struggled to find enough people needed to equip a naval aviation regiment by aircraft carrier, which could require up to 3,000 personnel.
“The goal is to achieve a strategic balance with the United States in the Western Pacific, as well as consolidate control of the South China Sea,” Hsu added.
“The normal configuration would be 40 fighters per carrier, but if you look at their last exercise, they only have 20. So they’re a long way from where they want to be.”