BEIJING — Beijing on Friday launched a next-generation aircraft carrier, the first ship of its kind to be both designed and built in China, in a major step as it seeks to expand the reach and power of its navy. .
The Type 003 carrier dubbed Fujian left its drydock at a shipyard outside Shanghai in the morning and docked at a nearby pier, state media said.
State broadcaster CCTV showed gathered navy personnel standing under the huge ship as jets of water sprayed its deck, multicolored streamers flew and colored smoke billowed.
Equipped with the latest weaponry and aircraft-launching technology, the Type 003 ship’s capabilities are set to rival those of Western aircraft carriers, as Beijing seeks to transform its already world’s largest navy into a force multicarrier.
Satellite images captured by Planet Labs PBC on Thursday and analyzed by The Associated Press showed the carrier in what appeared to be a fully flooded drydock at Jiangnan Shipyard near Shanghai, ready for launch. It was draped in red streamers, presumably in preparation for the launch ceremony.
“This is an important milestone for China’s military-industrial complex,” said Ridzwan Rahmat, a Singapore-based analyst for defense intelligence firm Janes.
“It shows that Chinese engineers are now capable of locally manufacturing the full suite of surface combatants associated with modern naval warfare, including corvettes, frigates, destroyers, amphibious assault ships and now an aircraft carrier. “, did he declare. “This ability to build a very complex warship from scratch will inevitably lead to various spinoffs and benefits for the Chinese shipbuilding industry.”
The first Chinese carrier was a converted Soviet ship, and the second was built in China but based on a Soviet design. Both were built to use a so-called “ski-jump” launch method for planes, with a ramp at the end of the short runway to help planes take off.
The Type 003 uses a catapult launch, which experts say appears to be an electromagnetic type system like the one originally developed by the US Navy. China’s official Xinhua news agency confirmed that Fujian had used the electromagnetic system in a report on Friday’s launch.
Such a system puts less strain on the aircraft than older steam-powered catapult launching systems, and the use of a catapult means the ship will be able to launch a wider variety of aircraft, which is necessary for China to plan naval projects. power at greater range, Rahmat said.
“These catapults allow deployed aircraft to carry a larger weapons load in addition to external fuel tanks,” Rahmat said.
“Once fully operational, the PLAN’s third carrier would also be able to deploy a more comprehensive suite of aircraft associated with carrier strike group operations, including carrier-board delivery transport and alert cells. forward and control airborne, such as the KJ-600.”
China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, has been modernizing for more than a decade to become more of a “blue water” force – one capable of operating globally rather than be limited to staying closer to the Chinese mainland.
At the same time, the United States is increasingly focusing on the region, including the South China Sea. The vast maritime region has been strained because six governments lay claim to all or parts of the strategically vital waterway, through which around $5 trillion in global trade passes each year and which holds rich but rapidly declining fish stocks and large submarine oil and gas deposits.
China has been by far the most aggressive in asserting its claim to nearly the entire waterway, its island features and its resources.
The US Navy sailed on warships past artificial islands built by China in the sea and equipped with airstrips and other military facilities. China insists its territory extends to these islands, while the US Navy says it conducts missions there to ensure the free flow of international trade.
In its report to the U.S. Congress last year on China’s military capabilities, the Department of Defense said the carrier development program was critical to the Chinese navy’s continued development into a global force, “extending gradually its operational reach beyond East Asia into a sustainable capability to operate at increasingly longer ranges.
“Chinese carriers and planned follow-on carriers, once operational, will extend air defense coverage beyond the range of shore-based and shipborne missile systems and enable task force operations at remote distances. longer and longer,” the Department of Defense said.
In recent years, China has expanded its presence in the Indian Ocean, Western Pacific and beyond, establishing its first overseas base in the past decade in the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti. , where the United States, Japan and others also maintain a military presence. . It also recently signed a security deal with the Solomon Islands that many fear will give it an outpost in the South Pacific, and is working with Cambodia on expanding a port facility there that could give it a presence in the Gulf of Thailand.
Xinhua reported that the Fujian, which has hull number 18, had a full load displacement of 80,000 tons. In a March report prepared by the US Congressional Research Service, however, analysts said satellite images suggest Type 003’s displacement was around 100,000 tons, similar to those of the United States’ aircraft carriers. US Navy.
The PLAN currently has some 355 ships, including submarines, and the United States estimates the force will grow to 420 ships by 2025 and 460 ships by 2030. Despite the world’s largest navy numerically, the PLAN does not yet have the necessary capacities. of the US Navy and remains far behind in aircraft carriers.
The US Navy is the world leader in aircraft carriers, with 11 nuclear-powered ships. It also has nine amphibious assault ships that can carry helicopters and vertical take-off fighter jets.
American allies like Britain and France also have their own aircraft carriers, and Japan has four “helicopter destroyers”, which are technically not aircraft carriers, but carry planes. Two are being converted to support short takeoff and vertical landing fighters.
China’s new carrier was named after Fujian province on the country’s southeast coast, following a tradition after naming its first two carriers after Liaoning and Shandong provinces.
The launch ceremony for its shipyard was presided over by Xu Qiliang, a member of the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission headed by President and party leader Xi Jinping.
After Xu cut the ribbon for the launch, a champagne bottle was smashed on Fujian’s bow, Xinhua reported. The doors to the drydock then opened and the vessel was taken out into the water and moored to its dock.
China’s development of the Type 003 aircraft carrier is part of a broader modernization of the Chinese military. As with its space program, China has proceeded with extreme caution in the development of aircraft carriers, seeking to apply only technologies that have been tested and perfected.
At this time, China is not believed to have developed the aircraft to fully realize the potential of the new carrier, Rahmat said.
It’s unclear how close China is to developing its KJ-600 AWACS aircraft, which it began testing in 2020, to be ready for transport operations, and there are “little proofs” that she started working on the delivery transport on board the carrier. plane, he said.
Now that it’s launched, the aircraft carrier will need to be outfitted, which could take two to six months. Then there will be port acceptance trials and sea trials, which will likely take another six months before engineers start launching test loads using the catapult system.
“The first aircraft won’t be launched from this carrier until perhaps late 2023 to 2024, and full operational capability will likely be declared closer to 2025,” he said.