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The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is all set to overtake the United States Navy and emerge as the biggest and the most powerful navy in the world.
According to the US Department of Defense’s “China Military Power Report,” China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas.
China has around 355 vessels– warships, submarines, aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, minesweepers, and other auxiliary ships, making it the biggest Naval fleet in the world as compared to the U.S. Navy which had a battle force of just 293 ships as of early 2020.
At the rate at which the Chinese PLA Navy is growing it might have 420 ships by 2025 and 460 by 2030. The PLA’s objective is to become a “world-class” military by the end of 2049 as announced by Xi Jinping in 2017.
As of now, the PLAN has two aircraft carriers, one cruiser, 32 destroyers, 49 frigates, 37 corvettes, and 86 missile-armed coastal patrol ships, in addition to 46 diesel-powered attack submarines, six nuclear-powered attack submarines, and four ballistic missile submarines. Along with that formidable war fleet, there are roughly 255 coastal patrol ships with the Chinese Coast Guard. To sum up, China has 121 surface warships, 56 submarines, and around 341 coastal patrol ships.
In contrast, the US Navy has a surface fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, 92 cruisers, and destroyers, in addition to 59 small surface combat ships and combat logistics ships. Its submarine fleet has 50 attack submarines, 14 ballistic missile submarines and four cruise missile submarines. All this adds up to about 162 vessels in the surface fleet and about 68 submarines.
China recently launched its third, biggest, and most advanced aircraft carrier called “Fujian,” or the Type 003 aircraft carrier from Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard, and is said to be developing a fourth aircraft carrier with nuclear weapons capability.
According to tradition, Chinese aircraft carriers are named after coastal provinces. Hence, the Fujian, China’s latest aircraft carrier was named after Fujian province in southeast China and launched on 17 June 2022. It is expected to enter service in 2023-2024.
The Liaoning – the first aircraft carrier (Type 001) commissioned into the People’s Liberation Army Navy Surface Force was named after a province in north-eastern China bordering North Korea. Likewise, the Shandong, China’s second aircraft carrier was named after a coastal province in the East.
Fujian -hull number 18- is the first aircraft carrier designed and made in China with an electromagnetic catapult-assisted launch system – far superior to the ski-jump system fitted on the Liaoning and Shandong aircraft carriers.
The Fujian is approximately 315 meters long and 74 meters wide – as compared to its predecessors — the Liaoning and Shandong — both of which were 304.5 meters long.
China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was a partially completed Soviet Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier called Varyag purchased by China from Ukraine on the pretext of being used for non-military purposes as a floating casino. It was then towed to China and rebuilt before entering active service in PLAN on 25 September 2012.
China used the technological knowledge it gained from the Liaoning to build the Shandong aircraft carrier largely based on Liaoning’s design. Accordingly, the Shandong entered active service on 17 December 2019.
What is an aircraft carrier?
The Cambridge dictionary describes an aircraft carrier as “a large ship that carries military aircraft and has a long, flat surface where they take off and land.”
Aircraft carriers are like mobile airbases with facilities for carrying, arming, and deploying helicopters and aircraft while sailing at sea. They allow aircraft to take off and land anywhere in the ocean and launch sea-to-sea or sea-to-land precision attacks.
Typically a battleship can fire hundreds of torpedoes or shells at targets that are at the most thirty miles away while aircraft launched from aircraft carriers can fire a range of weapons that can accurately destroy targets at a range of over one hundred miles. Thus, an aircraft carrier can cause heavy damage to an enemy fleet at a great distance and with higher accuracy.
During the Falklands War, the United Kingdom was able to win the war 13,000 km away from home largely because of the role played by the vertical and/or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) aircraft on board HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. In addition, helicopter gunships proved to be an asset for deploying troops and casualty evacuation. Recently, the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan provided air support for counter-insurgency operations in Iraq.
Apart from the United States, and China, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Italy, India, Spain, Brazil, and Thailand have aircraft carriers in their navies. Other countries like Canada, Japan, Pakistan, Australia, Chile, and Singapore are using ships capable of carrying and operating helicopters. The United States presently has the most aircraft carriers in service and a dozen in reserve.
No wonder United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger, once said: “An aircraft carrier is 100,000 tons of diplomacy.”
The Fujian’s features like the catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) and electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) system – will help China to launch a wide variety of aircraft, faster and with greater quantities of fuel and ammunition on board. Aircraft launched by catapults get airborne quickly as compared to planes launched by ski jumps, which rely on their own power when lifting off.
The Fujian is understood to be equipped with two starboard-side aircraft elevators, similar to the Shandong but larger in size to allow two aircraft to be lifted simultaneously. The elevators move aircraft between the hangar and flight deck and help to streamline the flight operations. Currently, France’s Charles de Gaulle has two elevators, while the U.S. Gerald R. Ford-class carriers have three elevators, capable of lifting two aircraft at the same time.
Once fully complete the carrier is predicted to provide a platform for a group of 40 fighter aircraft, plus propeller-powered transport and airborne early warning and control aircraft to operate from.
According to experts, the Fujian or Type 003 will be the “largest and most advanced aircraft carrier ever built outside the United States”.