On September 18, 2023, a recent evaluation by Taiwan underscored the significant threat posed by China’s latest and most advanced aircraft carrier, the Fujian, which is set to enter active service following sea trials in the coming year. This assessment is presented in Taiwan’s 2023 National Defense Report, which also recommends the establishment of a decentralized command structure across all military branches, drawing lessons from Russia’s conflict in Ukraine.
The report, published this week, asserts that the Chinese-designed Fujian incorporates substantial technological advancements over China’s two existing aircraft carriers, both of which are based on Russian designs. Notably, aircraft taking off from the Fujian will be equipped with three electromagnetic catapults, a more efficient system than the steam catapults utilized on other carriers. The United States employs electromagnetic catapults exclusively on its advanced Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers.
The increased power from these catapults enables the Fujian to accommodate heavier aircraft and shorter takeoff runways. Coupled with other design enhancements, the Fujian is expected to carry up to 40 fighter jets, a significant increase compared to China’s previous carriers, which can carry 18 and 32 fighters, respectively.
Maj. Gen. Huang Wen-Chi, Deputy Chief of the Intelligence Staff at Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, stated, “This is a major maritime threat that we must address in the future.” The report suggests that the Fujian could bolster China’s capability to block the Taiwan Strait, potentially impeding the U.S. military’s entry into the theater in the event of a Chinese attack.
However, independent analysts caution that much of the technology in Fujian is untested in China. Kitsch Liao, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, pointed out challenges faced by the U.S. Navy when it adopted electromagnetic catapults, including structural stress on aircraft. It remains uncertain whether the PLA has resolved these issues.
Furthermore, China lags behind the United States in training pilots for carrier-based operations. According to Richard Chen Yeong Kang, a former Taiwanese Navy admiral and current Taiwan Center for Security Studies adviser, Chinese pilots have significantly less experience than their U.S. counterparts, which may affect their combat effectiveness.
Liao estimates that the Fujian will require two years of training to attain full ocean combat readiness.
The National Defense Report also advises Taiwan to enhance its resilience against attacks by improving communication and coordination among its military branches and with allies. Taiwan has confirmed plans to acquire NATO’s Link-22 radio system with U.S. assistance to facilitate real-time intelligence sharing with the United States and Japan and establish a shared operational picture.
Lin Ying-yu, an associate professor at Tamkang University and an advisory committee member for the National Defense Report, emphasized the need for Taiwan to transition to a decentralized command and control system to counter potential attacks on its main military command center and early warning radars. Achieving this shift will require personnel training and equipment upgrades to enable effective communication among branches during chaotic situations.