Skip to content

The Chinese Navy Keeps Growing

July 30, 2022
Via Chinese state media.

The PLAN is now poised to receive the largest warship in Asia and the first aircraft carrier with an electro-magnetic launch system made in Asia. To be clear, the Indian Navy operates one ski-jump carrier (with another on the way) and the Japanese naval branch have Izumo-class “destroyers” whose flight decks are suited for vertical take off fighter aircraft such as the US-made F-35B. On June 17 the completed hull of the ship that was immediately named the Fujian–its smaller predecessors are Liaoning and Shandong–was launched in a spectacular ceremony. It’s important to make the distinction between a launch and a commissioning; a launch is when construction of the hull is finished but once the Fujian is handed over to the PLAN in a few year’s time, it undergoes a commissioning that starts its service in the branch.

Information about the aircraft carrier Fujian remains superficial. Both Chinese media and US-based researchers estimate the hull’s gross weight at 80,000 tons but this is expected to change once it receives all its critical systems and aircraft complement. The Fujian in its current layout doesn’t have the catapults needed on its flight deck for deploying its combat aircraft. It’s believed a twin engine fifth-generation stealth fighter based on the J-31, also known as the FC-31, is the preferred model for the Fujian and it will be accompanied by an airborne early warning & control aircraft and perhaps a few medium altitude drones. It must be emphasized the Fujian, which runs on conventional fuel engines, is nowhere near as capable as the US Navy’s nuclear-powered supercarriers. But its completed assembly in just six years is both impressive and should leave Washington, DC worried as the next few Chinese-made carriers may be launched in record time.

To the PLAN’s credit, however, the past decade was spent putting together its own carrier strike groups and when the Fujian sails on its maiden voyage it’s likely be joined by four destroyers, at least one attack submarine and a replenishment and supply ship. Prior to its launch serious analysis of the Fujian by US sources relied on several assumptions including the possibility the Fujian-class may end up displacing as much as a US-made Nimitz-class carrier once it joins the PLAN by 2024. This can’t be verified at the moment. Based on unclassified reports from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) there’s an expectation a nuclear-powered carrier is the next benchmark for China’s naval shipbuilding program and its hull is laid and begins construction within a year. From the perspective of US analysis there’s some back-and-forth on whether just four carriers or a maximum of six aircraft carriers is China’s ultimate goal.

Since the 2010s the undeniable trajectory of the PLAN’s growth–it now ranks as the world’s largest naval branch–indicates it’s transforming into a surface fleet with international reach. However, some aspects of this goal remain in limbo. With the exception of an African outpost and artificial islands in the SOuth China Sea there are no sizable overseas bases and shipyards to sustain Chinese naval deployments beyond East Asia. The PLAN’s aircraft fleet, whether fixed wing or rotary, is miniscule compared with other navies and efforts to enlarge it are ongoing. Most importantly, the PLAN’s subsurface fleet doesn’t have any “global” reach save for a few nuclear-powered attack submarines and just four (!) missile submarines or SSBNs. It’s worth pointing out a formidable “Marine Corps” isn’t coming together yet after years of re-organization. This hasn’t saved Canberra and Washington, DC from institutional panic over rumored Chinese bases in Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands.

Still, the growth of the PLAN has propelled the branch ahead of its regional peers and it now enjoys a quantitative edge over the US Navy. Based on US estimates from 2011 until 2020 the PLAN commissioned 50 brand new surface ships. Meanwhile, over the same period Beijing organized an official “Coast Guard” whose surface fleet numbers more than 200 ships are are regularly deployed in disputed waters. In 2021 the PLAN may have added 15 vessels to its inventory and in one unforgettable event no less than President Xi graced the simultaneous commissioning of an amphibious assault ship, a cruiser and a nuclear-powered missile submarine. Based on open sources of its actual size when compared to Asian navies the PLAN boast the largest destroyers armed with cruise missiles, the most number of landing craft, the most number of diesel-electric submarines and the biggest selection of fast attack craft.

Comments are closed.