China’s impressive third carrier is undergoing sea trials and final preparations, and Beijing is on track to produce more of these modern carriers every 18 months. Meanwhile, the U.S. is thinking of replacing its own supercarriers with a completely different weapon.
Taiwan and its allies were able to take a big sigh of relief in April when China’s navy had to postpone the launching of its first advanced aircraft carrier. It had been widely expected that the new carrier would have been launched on the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) 73rd anniversary, on April 23. However, the South China Morning Post reported that Shanghai’s harsh COVID lockdowns caused significant delays to the ship’s construction schedule.
The Post said the lockdowns meant that vital components did not arrive on time, and shipyard workers had been confined to their homes. The ship was eventually launched eight weeks later, on June 17. Now the PLAN is in a race against time to complete the sea-borne part of the ship’s preparations in as few months as possible.
The PLAN is facing an uphill battle though, as the new carrier — officially named the Fujian — is a lot more complex than its first two “practice” carriers. So, the odds seem to be around 50-50 that the current U.S. president would have to deal directly with the new security threat that a fully active Type 003 would pose. If delays keep on happening, it would probably be the next administration that would have to deal with it.
Here’s why the Fujian is set to dramatically increase the risk of war in the Taiwan Strait: Although it doesn’t feature nuclear propulsion, it does leap far ahead of China’s current two carriers, and it does seem to compete in very important ways with the U.S. Navy’s most modern supercarrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford. In fact, satellite images show that the almost-completed Fujian has almost the exact same size and layout as the Ford.
The three airplane catapults of the Fujian are the focus of much speculation. Not only do they make the Type 003 the first Chinese carrier to feature catapults, but they are also widely believed to be cutting-edge electromagnetic catapults. The USS Gerald R. Ford is the first U.S. carrier to feature these new types of catapults, which 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. These new catapults are more efficient than steam-powered catapults and launch fixed-wing aircraft more smoothly and at much shorter intervals. These mechanisms also put less stress on the airframes of the airplanes.
China’s existing two aircraft carriers are smaller than the Type 003, and they’re based on an outdated Soviet design. They also lack the ability to launch heavier planes, as they make up for a lack of catapults with the good old launch ramp. 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.
Chinese navy officials say the Type 003 will be powered by a system that they consider to be superior to nuclear reactors — a relatively new propulsion system called Integrated Electric Propulsion (IEP). These IEP systems typically consist of a number of diesel generators and gas turbines that are switched on to generate electricity as needed. This electricity is then channeled to frequency converters that feed stabilized electricity to massive electric motors which turn the ship’s screws. This system would also feed power to the three power-hungry electromagnetic catapults at the front of the ship. However, one big drawback of IEP systems is that they require regular refueling, compared to the on-board nuclear reactors that can power U.S. carriers for years on one fuel load.
Still, despite its lack of nuclear propulsion, the Type 003 is a very ambitious leap forward from the humble beginnings of China’s existing two carriers. Its IEP propulsion system should also give it enough range to patrol around Taiwan with relative ease. If the Chinese navy can make its new technologies work smoothly, it would pose a significant threat to peace in the Taiwan Strait.
The U.S. is said to be at a disadvantage when it comes to future competition in the field of carrier construction, as it takes the U.S. at least four years to build a new carrier, compared to 18 months in China. However, Jerry Hendrix of the Sagamore Institute explained in the National Review that aircraft carriers are becoming outdated. In addition to his calculation that China could have more carriers than the U.S. within 10 years, Hendrix also agrees with an increasing number of analysts that carrier air wings are too limited and short-ranged to be of much use in a theoretical future war between superpowers. He suggests that the U.S. should allocate much more of its shipbuilding resources to the construction of submarines, specifically submarines that can fire a variety of conventional missiles, like cruise missiles and boost-glide hypersonic missiles.