China’s latest aircraft carrier is much more than a big ship

China’s latest aircraft carrier is much more than a big ship

When China’s third aircraft carrier made its maiden voyage last month, the Western press reported on the Fujian’s characteristics and capabilities, how big it was, how many aircraft it might carry, and, most of all, how it stacks up to its U.S. counterparts. But few took note of how China itself views its carriers and why that matters.

Beyond the operational implications of larger, more capable aircraft carriers in the hands of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy, the true value of these capital ships is how they advance both China’s doctrine of an informatized approach to warfare and a strategic narrative that shapes perceptions about Chinese military power domestically, regionally, and globally.

The Fujian’s eight-day voyage was the first in what will likely be a long series of sea trials. Chinese state media reported on the event with typical pomp and pride for naval firsts—in this case, an 80,000-ton flat-deck aircraft carrier with electromagnetic catapults, completely designed in China. The PLAN’s first two carriers, the 60,000-ton Liaoning and Shandong, are based on former-Soviet designs that use “ski-jumps” to launch aircraft. Some Chinese experts call the Type 003 Fujian “the world’s most advanced conventionally powered aircraft carrier.”

China’s small but growing aircraft carrier fleet will certainly bring important operational capabilities to any future conflict. The first two carriers, equipped with J-15 fighters armed with air-to-air missiles, have practiced fleet air defense for PLA Navy surface ships. The Type 003 Fujian, with its larger flight deck and three electromagnetic catapults, will be able to launch not just more, but heavier aircraft, including ones armed with anti-surface and land-attack weapons.

In March, Liaoning—China’s first carrier—returned to service after a year-long overhaul. As it left the shipyard, its flight deck bore a mock-up of a J-35, a new Chinese fifth-generation fighter similar to the U.S. F-35 Lightning II. The development may portend an expansion of PLA Navy carrier air wing capabilities, possibly by the time the Fujian becomes combat-ready in 2025 or 2026.

The Fujian’s catapults will enable further contributions to PLA Navy operations. While China’s older ski-jump carriers must rely on helicopters with small, rotating radars or land-based aircraft for airborne early warning and control, Fujian will be able to launch larger AEW&C aircraft like the KJ-600, an aircraft similar to the U.S. Navy’s E-2D Hawkeye. The ability to launch the KJ-600 will revolutionize China’s carrier operations, allowing the task group to operate independently, farther from Chinese territory with a powerful airborne radar high overhead offering comprehensive battlespace awareness for hours at a time.

Yet strike and sensor capability are only part of the carriers’ significance to China. Under the PLA’s “informationized warfare” concept, individual weapons and platforms are less important than system-of-systems competition and confrontation in its pursuit of multi-domain integrated joint operations. Within the PLA’s naval system-of-systems, China’s carriers have assumed a central role as capable at-sea command posts. The Liaoning hosts the PLA Navy’s “Aircraft Carrier 1st Task Group Command Post,” which is likely similar to a U.S. carrier strike group command. Fujian will probably embark the Aircraft Carrier 3rd Task Group Command Post. Other large ships, such as Type 055 Renhai-class cruisers or Type 075 Yushen-class amphibious assault ships, may also act as at-sea command posts. But the carriers are purpose-built as flag ships, with command and communications systems as well as space to accommodate the task group command staff.       

A carrier’s story

The true import of how China views its carrier goes beyond doctrine, though. China’s narratives about its navy and aircraft carriers are immersed in historical context that are often underappreciated in the West. 

PLA Navy officers remain keenly aware of the humiliating defeat of the Qing Dynasty’s Beiyang Fleet at the Battle of the Yalu River in 1894, a pivotal event in China’s “Century of Humiliation” that underscored the importance of naval power to national power. Chinese military scholars have noted the decisive use of aircraft carriers from World War II to the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Falklands War. Contemporary accounts of Chinese history reveal that the PLA Navy sought to launch an aircraft carrier program as far back as 1949, always falling short due lack of funding and access to technology.

Thus, for the PLA Navy and the Chinese people, China’s aircraft carrier program represents not just an important advance in capabilities, but the resolution of historical grievances and a powerful symbol of China’s return to what is seen as its rightful place in the world order.

The amount of national pride China heaps upon its aircraft carrier program cannot be overstated. It was not a coincidence that Fujian’s maiden voyage occurred immediately following the PLA Navy’s 75th anniversary celebration in April, three-quarters of the way through the PLA’s 100-year journey to become a “world-class military” by 2049. As in years past, this year’s PLA Navy anniversary message quoted Chairman Xi Jinping: “Building a powerful and modern navy is an important symbol of building a world-class military,…an important part of realizing the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” The PLA Daily newspaper’s coverage of the anniversary and the Fujian was similarly packed with meaning, stating that the PLA Navy now “dares to face powerful enemies” with ships that are now “on-par with our opponents.”

The Fujian still awaits its official commissioning, and its maiden voyage came two full years after its June 2022 launch. By comparison, China’s second carrier, Shandong, first put to sea in half the time, one year after its launch in 2017. China’s military commentators have consistently explained that Fujian’s “many new and advanced technologies” are responsible for the delays and long development timelines. The carrier will likely require many more sea trials before it formally joins the PLA Navy, likely a year or more from now.

Shortly after China’s first aircraft carrier was commissioned in 2012, outgoing Chinese Communist Party Chairman and President Hu Jintao declared Beijing’s ambition to become a great maritime power. The Fujian is the latest manifestation of that vision coming true, both from its operational capabilities, but even more so in Beijing’s own narrative about China’s expanding military power.

J. Michael Dahm is a Senior Associate with BluePath Labs and a Senior Fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

P.W. Singer is a best-selling author of such books on war and technology as Wired for WarGhost Fleet, and Burn-In; senior fellow at New America; and co-founder of Useful Fiction, a strategic narratives company.

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