The captain of China’s brand new Fujian aircraft carrier told reporters on Tuesday, January 3 that the new carrier is getting ready to start its sea trials. Meanwhile, a former director of operations at the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, Carl Schuster, said he expects the Fujian’s trials to start in March of this year.
Schuster said the trials would mark the beginning of an 18-month process that should see the massive new carrier ready for war by October 2024, which would be about four months before U.S. President Joe Biden’s current term ends.
The news comes shortly after China’s much less capable first carrier, the Liaoning, returned from practice drills in positions southeast of Japan’s Okinawa island. The Liaoning and its carrier group had originally passed through the Miyako Strait south of Okinawa on December 16, pushing past the “first island chain” to practice cutting off U.S. warships and warplanes from reaching Taiwan from Guam if China invaded Taiwan.
Guam is home to a strategic U.S. naval and air base. The air base is much larger than U.S. air bases in Japan, and is an unsinkable platform for many U.S. strategic bombers and F-22 stealth fighters. If China invades Taiwan, Guam would be the base from where large numbers of U.S. weapons systems would be launched from to help Taiwan.
However, as a refurbished old Soviet carrier, the Liaoning is a lot less capable than the Fujian would be if it works as advertised. The Liaoning was China’s first “practice carrier.” China later built a modified version of the Liaoning, called the Shandong. Both these Soviet-style ships lack the steam catapults that the U.S.’ larger and more modern aircraft carriers have been fielding since the 1960s. These powerful catapults can safely shoot heavy aircraft off the ship, allowing U.S. carriers to deploy E-2 Hawkeye surveillance planes.
The E-2 Hawkeye is a bulky early warning plane that carries a powerful radar on its back and is filled with surveillance equipment that can sense enemy systems and even submarine periscopes over very large distances. This plane looks like a slow and relatively cheap little two-engine propeller plane, but its newest versions can cost up to $660 million, making it much more expensive than the world’s biggest passenger airliner, the Airbus A380. That price tag reflects the fact that the top secret systems built into this small plane makes it an incredibly powerful surveillance platform and a very valuable asset.
This is also why China’s new Fujian carrier is such a big deal. Because Liaoning and Shandong carriers don’t have catapults, they have to rely on good old launch ramps. These launch ramps can only be used safely by jets with a high power-to-weight ratio, like fighter jets, and even then the jets can only take off with reduced fuel and weapon loads. That’s why the Liaoning can’t launch heavy airborne early warning planes like the E-2 Hawkeye, forcing it to rely on large helicopters fitted with radar pods. These helicopters are slow and can’t fly as far as a plane, and the radar pods they carry are not efficient, which means these two carriers can’t see far enough to identify incoming threats and defend themselves effectively.
China’s new Fujian carrier will solve this problem by being almost an exact copy — at least in terms of size and shape — of the U.S.’ first new Ford class carrier, the eponymous U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford. Looking from above, the Fujian looks almost identical to the Ford, with the only big difference being that the Ford has four catapults compared to the three on the Fujian. Like the Ford’s four catapults, the Fujian’s catapults will be based on electromagnetic energy, not the steam energy systems that all U.S. carriers used before the Ford — making it only the second carrier with electromagnetic catapults ever built. These brand new electromagnetic catapults are considered to be much more efficient than the U.S. Navy’s regular steam-powered catapults. Electromagnetic catapults use linear induction motors to gradually accelerate navy warplanes to safe launch speeds. They can launch fixed-wing aircraft more smoothly and at much shorter intervals. Because the launch physics are smoother, these catapults also put less stress on the airframes of the airplanes.
So, if all goes according to plan, China will soon have a much larger and much more advanced carrier than its first two. And one of the biggest advantages of this carrier is that it will be able to launch big and slow aircraft that would be able to give it a much wider radar range.
Not surprisingly, China has been working on a carrier-based early warning plane that looks almost exactly like the U.S.’ E-2 Hawkeye. The KJ-600 is about the same size as the E-2 and features roughly the same size radar disk attached to its back. It even features the same unique H-shaped tail design that the E-2’s designers created to counter airflow issues created by the huge radar disk.
China’s Xi’an Aircraft Company developed the plane and started flight trials in autumn of 2020. Like the E-2 Hawkeye, the KJ-600 is a twin turboprop that is designed for a crew of four to six. At least four and possibly as many as six of these airframes have been spotted flying in China during 2022.
The combination of the new Fujian aircraft carrier and the new KJ-600 radar plane will give China the ability to field a carrier that can see much farther than its first two carriers can. It remains to be seen if the invisible internal components of the KJ-600 and Fujian are as effective as those inside the tried and tested U.S. systems they mimic with their exteriors. Also, the Ford encountered quite a few problems with its new electromagnetic catapult technology, and U.S. engineers had their work cut out to come up with solutions for these problems.
But even if China’s almost-ready new carrier-based radar plane does not have all the capabilities that the latest E-2 Hawkeyes have, it would still give the Fujian and future Fujian-class carriers a much bigger radar range, making it a much more lethal naval platform.
Image: Twitter @intel1osint100