Is the Chinese Navy on the brink of becoming an aircraft carrier superpower?

Given the pace at which China is accelerating shipbuilding and fleet expansion, the new Chinese aircraft carriers are not without concern for the Pentagon.

In recent months and years, China has been adding new shipyards and spawning new classes of Type 075 amphibians, new Type 055 near-stealth destroyers, and new aircraft carriers.

China continues to increase its naval capabilities.

It is well known that, in numerical terms, the PRC’s naval fleet is larger than that of the United States, which does not necessarily translate into maritime superiority.

However, the concern is significant, given the rate at which China is adding new ships due to its pace of shipbuilding and the well-known civil-military merger, and there are likely to be many unanswered questions about to what extent the Army’s Navy People’s Liberation Army has the technological capability to really challenge the US Army.

Nonetheless, China’s growing aircraft carrier fleet is concerning for several key reasons, both regarding the PLA’s strategic approach and the design of the aircraft carriers. China’s third aircraft carrier, Fujian, is advancing rapidly toward commissioning.

In fact, a report published in January 2023 in the Eurasian Times claims that Fujian will conduct “sea trials” this year, a critical step towards its full deployment and operational status. Fujian has a larger deck space similar to USS Ford, which is probably designed to allow for a much higher sortie rate and power projection capability than her first two carriers. 

However, an even bigger concern concerning the Fujian may relate to Ford’s use of electromagnetic catapult technology similar to that of the Ford.

The first two Chinese aircraft carriers incorporate steam catapults, but the emerging third Chinese aircraft carrier appears to “copy,” “mirror,” or “match” the USS-Ford-class electromagnetic catapult. Reports in the Chinese newspaper Global Times and the South China Morning Post indicate that the Fujian is built with an electromagnetic catapult.

Imitation Technology

This is significant because it suggests that the new Chinese aircraft carrier, The Chinese, maybe in a good position to better project power and maintain its Carrier Air Wing, and it also raises concerns about the possible “theft” of technology by the People’s Liberation Army and the widely observed US “copycat” efforts.

The Electromagnetic Air Launch (EMAL) systems of the United States Navy enable more effective and less taxing launches, which in turn considerably increases the service life, power projection, and sustained performance of aircraft.

The exact extent of the technological sophistication being incorporated into the Chinese Fujian’s electromagnetic propulsion may not be known, but the Pentagon is likely paying attention to this issue.

In addition to concerns that the United States could mimic Fujian’s technological capabilities, China also appears to be mimicking the training and war-readiness tactics of the US Navy’s aircraft carriers

For example, shortly after the US Navy broke new ground with integrated “dual carrier” operations in the Pacific, the People’s Liberation Army Navy sent its first two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea area “together,” in what could be seen as a transparent effort to “match” the capabilities of the US Navy.

Operations with two aircraft carriers are very significant because they allow for a much greater “power projection” capability in terms of aircraft numbers, greater attack capability, and better operational coordination between ships. If China also possesses this capability, it could affect the threat equation.

strategic advantages

In a broader strategic sense, the People’s Liberation Army’s effort to accelerate the expansion of its aircraft carrier fleet fully aligns with the PRC’s stated ambition to become a “dominant” world power by 2049, its centennial, or even before.

 This ambition, widely debated in Pentagon reports on China, raises concerns about China’s ability to expand its power projection beyond the Pacific, extending it into the realm of global power projection similar to that of the United States.

With the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) well-known efforts to expand its worldwide reach through military outposts in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, and economic and military growth elsewhere, this initiative is, in fact, highly significant. 

Therefore, although the PRC aircraft carrier fleet is currently well below the overall power projection capacity of the US Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers, the pace of construction and potential technological capability of the growing Chinese fleet is likely a serious concern for the Pentagon. 

Finally, the Pentagon is likely concerned about China’s new carrier-launched J-31 fifth-generation stealth fighter, which appears to be an obvious effort to match the US Navy’s F-35C.

However, the F-35C is already operational, and China clearly lacks a vertical takeoff similar to the F-35B or an amphibian-capable F-35B. The appearance of this aircraft is undoubtedly problematic for the US Navy because it may put China on track to finally deploy a menacing fleet of 5th-generation sea-launched aircraft. 

They simply cannot do this today, as the US Navy seems to be operating with a huge advantage of ocean-launched 5th-generation stealth aircraft, something that could save Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.