Significance of Aircraft Carrier Fujian’s Recent Sea Trials and Developments to Watch in the Future

Release Date : 2024-06-24

Yu-cheng Chen, Associate Professor of the Graduate Institute of China Military Affairs Studies at Fu Hsing Kang College, National Defense University

The aircraft carrier Fujian, China’s third aircraft carrier and the second domestically built one, was launched at the Jiangnan Shipyard on June 17, 2022. Besides being China's largest warship to date, the Fujian, once operational, will improve China's anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities in the South China Sea, East China Sea and West Pacific, according to the assessment of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). The DOD estimates that the ship will allow the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to more effectively deter U.S. aircraft carriers and other aircraft from approaching, enhancing China’s military superiority in these strategic areas.

There are several key points of the two sea trials of the Fujian. First, traffic control time announced by the Shanghai Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) was closely related to the sea trials. The first sea trial of the Fujian was conducted from May 1 to May 8, 2024. The MSA issued a navigational warning related to a large vessel on April 30. The second sea trial was conducted from May 23 to June 11. The MSA once again issued navigation warnings and traffic control measures for a large vessel in advance for two consecutive days on May 20 and 21 to ensure the safe of ships sailing to and from the port. The use of “large vessel" in these announcements may indicate that the MSA will issue corresponding navigation warnings in advance but will not reveal that they are for the sea trials of the aircraft carrier.

Second, the two sea trials mainly focused on testing basic operation. According to news reports, the Fujian’s first sea trial focused mainly on testing its power propulsion system and electrical system. The second sea trial took place in the Yellow Sea and tested the ship’s ability to make sharp turns and Z-shaped turns. The carrier even moved in reverse at sea. It is notable that the second sea trial was conducted within fifteen days of the end of the first sea trial. This may indicate that there are no major problems with the power system of the Fujian. It is expected that future testing will successively include the carrier’s weapon systems, electromagnetic catapults and the take-off and landing of carrier-based aircraft.

Third, the Fujian would undergo no fewer sea trials than the previous two aircraft carriers, Liaoning and Shandong. The Liaoning conducted ten sea trials over thirteen month before being delivered to the PLA Navy (PLAN). It took nineteen months from the first sea trial of the Shandong to its delivery to the PLAN. Nine sea trials were conducted before the ship officially went into service. With a displacement of more than 80,000 tons, the Fujian carries more carrier-based aircraft and is equipped with China’s latest electromagnetic catapult system and other equipment. The overall technologies and complexity of the Fujian are higher than those of the Liaoning and Shandong..

Moreover, it is imperative to pay attention to the manpower issue in operating aircraft carriers. the PLAN may face challenges of crew handover and training due to the continual launching and commissioning of large surface ships. If the Fujian aircraft carrier is equipped with electromagnetic catapult, it means that there will be greater number and more types of carrier-based aircraft. Consequently, it is necessary to recruit and train more carrier-based aircraft pilots and non-commissioned officers and crew members with professional and technical skills and qualifications. The PLAN began recruiting female pilots in 2023, which is also seen as a measure to expand the number of pilots in naval aviation. The first group of female pilots completed their first solo flight on April 25, 2024. The development of the aircraft carrier Fujian has posed higher requirements on China’s naval human resources.

Lastly, the PLAN revealed news about China’s next aircraft carrier during the Two Sessions this year. Yuan Huazhi, the political commissar of the PLAN, remarked that there was no technical bottleneck for the PLAN to build a fourth aircraft carrier. Whether the fourth aircraft carrier will be nuclear powered is expected to be announced soon, said Yuan. However, no evidence of China’s constructing its fourth aircraft carrier has been found in publicly available authoritative data in April 2024. Apart from observing whether China’s next aircraft carrier employs breakthrough technologies, we should also bear in mind that both the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai and the Dalian Shipyard in Liaoning have the ability to build large aircraft carriers. However, there is no further reliable information yet.

On the whole, the latest news on the sea trials of the Fujian and the focus of future observation basically reflect China's goal of pursuing a blue-water navy, a force that can be projected around the world. Nonetheless, the delivery of the Fujian to the PLAN may take longer than that of the Liaoning and Shandong at the current stage. We should also observe how China develops other supporting measures to form combat power.

Excerpt translated to English by Cindy Li