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This satellite image from Planet Labs PBC shows construction of China’s Type 003 aircraft carrier at the Jiangnan Shipyard northeast of Shanghai, China, May 8, 2022.

This satellite image from Planet Labs PBC shows construction of China’s Type 003 aircraft carrier at the Jiangnan Shipyard northeast of Shanghai, China, May 8, 2022. (Planet Labs PBC)

China’s newest aircraft carrier boasts some advanced technology and presents a growing challenge to the U.S. and its Indo-Pacific allies, but it falls short of matching U.S. carrier prowess, experts told Stars and Stripes.

The Fujian, a Type 003 carrier launched Friday in Shanghai, features a variety of improvements over China’s first two carriers. Most significantly it features an electromagnetic catapult system for launching aircraft that’s similar to one on the U.S. Navy’s newest carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford.

The transition from “ski-jump” launches off a deck ramp on the first Chinese carriers to an electromagnetic catapult represent a “symbolic and technological leapfrog” for Chinese naval forces, according to Brian Hart, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ China Power Project. He said the catapult allows Beijing to field heavier and larger fixed-wing aircraft.

“The transition away from a ski-jump style system puts China in the elite group of countries fielding modern ‘flat-top’ carriers. Adding to that, China skipped the traditional steam-powered catapult system and jumped straight to the more modern electromagnetic catapults,” Hart told Stars and Stripes by email Thursday. “That’s a major technological achievement -- assuming it works as intended.”

Despite that, the Fujian relies on conventional power for propulsion rather than nuclear power, which severely limits its range. Conventional carriers burn fossil fuels like oil or gas for propulsion, according NavalPost.com.

In contrast, the U.S. Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers rely on nuclear reactors: 10 Nimitz-class carriers and the Gerald R. Ford, first of its class and commissioned in 2017.

“In terms of size and propulsion, the Fujian is comparable to the U.S. Kitty Hawk class carriers that first when into service in the U.S. Navy in the early 1960s,” Hart said. “I expect China to continue growing its fleet of aircraft carriers, but the [Chinese navy] is decades away from matching the U.S. carrier fleet in number or sophistication.”

China may not try to match the U.S. Navy carrier-for-carrier, according to Sam Roggeveen, director of the Australian think-tank Lowy Institute’s International Security Program. He suggested that Beijing has longer-term plans.

“I don’t think the Chinese carrier project is about matching the U.S.,” Roggeveen told Stars and Stripes by email Thursday. “It is more about building a post-American navy, a fleet that can be used for coercion or punishment against smaller states as U.S. influence in Asia diminishes.”

China is aware that large, slow ships like aircraft carriers wouldn’t likely survive in a prolonged war with a peer competitor, he said.

“Since the end of the Cold War, carriers have proven useful to the US in conflicts against states with minimal maritime capacity – Iraq, Libya, Yugoslavia – and I suspect China sees them in a similar role,” Roggeveen said.

Beijing’s investments in technology and naval expansion, despite yielding a capability short of U.S. carrier power, are having significant effects in the Indo-Pacific region, Roggeveen said.

U.S. commitments in the area are getting “harder and harder to sustain,” he said, and cited Taiwan as an example. The self-governing island is considered by China a breakaway province that must be reunited with the mainland, by force, if necessary. President Joe Biden in late May said the U.S. would help defend Taiwan militarily against attack from China.

“China’s military modernization has now reached the point where, even if the US could prevail in a conflict over Taiwan, the costs would be enormous,” he said.

China has modernized and increased the size of its military forces, and last year its navy became the world’s largest. The Chinese navy has a battle force of 355 vessels, a number expected to reach 460 by 2030, according to a U.S. Department of Defense report in November.

In comparison, the U.S. Navy has a battle force of 298 ships, according to an April 20 report from the Congressional Research Service. Congress has yet to enact a concrete plan for a future U.S. fleet, but one option calls for 367 ships by 2052.

“China’s military buildup is dramatically shifting the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. In 2021, China spent more on its military than the next 13 Indo-Pacific countries combined, excluding the United States,” Hart said. “I don’t think Washington has yet taken the necessary steps to adequately prepare itself or its allies and partners in the region to respond to China’s growing military challenge.”

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Alex Wilson covers the U.S. Navy and other services from Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Originally from Knoxville, Tenn., he holds a journalism degree from the University of North Florida. He previously covered crime and the military in Key West, Fla., and business in Jacksonville, Fla.
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