By Vice Admiral (Retired) Shekhar Sinha
New Delhi, July 11: On June 17, the Chinese launched Fujian, their third aircraft carrier from Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. The carefully timed occasion with the Boat Festival was celebrated with great fanfare. For the Chinese, it was indeed a proud moment.
The launch of Fujian brings China closer to its goal of becoming a true high seas navy – a fundamental ingredient to replacing the United States from the South China Sea and then challenging its sea power. China has declared its intention to build at least six aircraft carriers by 2035.
It should be noted that the Fujian is a massive technological leap for Chinese engineers, willingly or unwillingly, in that the aircraft carrier has a catapult launch system compared to the two previous Chinese aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and Shandong, which used ski jumping for short takeoffs. With Fujian, China has moved from an older, less efficient steam-powered catapult launch system to an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), which is by no means a small technical achievement. It positions China at the level of the United States including the latest aircraft carrier USS Gerald R Ford, which uses EMALS allowing faster successive launches and also the transport of a greater payload of ammunition and fuel. However, the US Navy has yet to deploy this latest carrier to the frontline fleet.
Satellite images provide some details about Fujian. It is approximately 320 meters long and 73 meters wide, making it slightly smaller than the Gerald Ford. It has 3 EMALS catapults and two elevators between the cockpit and the hangars, one less than the American aircraft carrier.
After the ship is launched, a large number of tests and commissioning protocols must be completed before it is put to sea for the first test trip. The carrier will now be proven for safe docking and navigation system functionality. The rest of the flooding and firefighting tests are mandatory to go to sea with a new ship.
As mentioned earlier, China intends to build at least 6 carriers by 2035, 4 of which are expected to be nuclear powered. Since the Fujian likely has electric propulsion, the next carrier will almost certainly be nuclear-powered.
Fujian, named after the coastal city, just like its predecessors, will project China’s sea power initially into the South China Sea and gradually into the Indian Ocean. The Chinese have realized that their ambition and competition with the United States for blue water cannot be achieved without credible air cover from their fleet when in the ocean. China is imbibing the Mahanian concept of sea power which was very evident in its 2015 military strategy document. He said the idea of excessive dominance of military power on land must be abandoned. The prosperity of Chinese citizens relies on the oceans, and therefore, China will build a strong and superior PLAN that will ensure deployment to distant oceans where China’s national interests require it. China is moving from a regional power (operations near the sea) to a global maritime power for which air power at sea is essential. China may have concluded that its prior understanding of the A2AD does not necessarily mean the ubiquity of aircraft carriers at sea, as locating them in vast oceans will remain a technological challenge. Otherwise, China might not have pursued its own carrier-building program.
Navies do not frequently go to war, and therefore the peacetime role of aircraft carriers in an age of geopolitical competition should not be ignored. Aircraft carriers will help China influence its neighbors in Southeast Asia and give a sense of close competition to the United States and India. It also makes China’s intentions even clearer that it can use massive firepower in its desire to forcibly occupy Taiwan. Reunification remains a high priority program for the PRC.
Chinese pilots are understood to be practicing dummy landings on the deck of transport type aircraft, indicating that they also have their eyes on the operation of Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) and later AWACS aircraft. type E2C Hawkeye from Fujian who will be greatly helped by EMALS. . This will be a very significant addition to their deep sea deployment capability and will challenge the USN in their own backyard, the Pacific.
National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, during his speech at the inaugural session of the first meeting of the Multi-Agency Maritime Security Group (MAMSG), made a very candid suggestion that reflects the country’s future direction on national security capacity building.
He said, “Before, the ocean was for peace. The geopolitical scenario of the IOR is changing.” He further stated “The more assets we develop and create, the more trade and commerce will increase and the greater the vulnerability and security in the maritime domain will be.” He added that emerging future threats will come from the maritime, cyber and space domains. He went on to say that “we also have certain responsibilities to our maritime neighbors, such as disaster management, security assistance and other things.”
“Our responsibility as a leading maritime power is extremely important,” he said.
The NSA stressed that India is “meant for greater things”.
He added: “India’s time will come. As a nation, we have to be strong. Coastal and maritime security will play an important role in this.”
It is against this backdrop of India’s security needs and aspirations that New Delhi must consider its maritime response in Fujian.
The Chinese will take at least 6/7 years to operationalize Fujian. The challenges are many. The main one being the mechanism aboard the ship to generate very high electrical power which is necessary for the generation of a strong magnetic field to support the launch of 30 ton combat aircraft and the rapid regeneration of a strong magnetic field to achieve a faster subsequent launch rate. They would certainly consider three separate power generation systems for the three EMALS catapults aboard Fujian.
Air operations as part of a carrier battle group would require a great deal of experience and confidence to manage such a large fleet of ships. When operating away from their home base, particularly at night, pilots will be required to fly in a no-diversion situation in that there will be no other option to return to the land airfield in an emergency than to eject. But the trajectory of their future entry into the Indian Ocean is very obvious. China’s collusion with Pakistan makes the security situation in the Arabian Sea more complex. India was therefore put on notice. The NSA’s remarks come at a very opportune time. The government must fill the gaps in naval armour. Naval assets have a long gestation for their manufacture and hence timely decision and allocation of funds is extremely essential.
To begin with, fighter aircraft intended for service with the Vikrant aircraft carrier should be selected quickly to replace the Mig 29 K in the near future. If we are to be a “preferred security partner” for the IOR littorals, then visible power in the maritime domain is best provided by aircraft carriers. The decision on the third carrier must be made now in order to have a carrier battle group on either coast of India. This, in addition to many tasks in peacetime, would deter collusive designs between China and Pakistan. Let us remember that the competition for strategic superiority is a major peacetime role of navies around the world.
The selection of strategic partners for the submarine project 75 (I) should have been made yesterday. The number of anti-submarine warfare helicopters must be increased to fill the large existing gap. The inclusion of laser, particle beam and rail guns on surface ships for defense against hypersonic missiles, rotary wing drones for destroyers and frigates will become essential for accurate targeting of surface ships .
The list goes on as not only are we preparing our navy against today’s PLAN, but we are committing our nation to be a regional maritime power, which was rightly pointed out by India’s national security adviser .
(Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (Retired) was the former Commander-in-Chief of Western Naval Command and Chief of the Integrated Defense Staff, opinions expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)