Sea trials begin with China's new aircraft carrier Fujian. What it means for India

The Fujian aircraft carrier will be the first conventional-powered platform with the EMALS system.

China's third aircraft carrier, Fujian, put to sea last week for its first tests, a key moment in its naval expansion to challenge the US global presence. The new aircraft carrier is named after Fujian province and is the largest and most advanced Chinese aircraft carrier ever built.

The Fujian ship took off from Shanghai's Jiangnan Shipyard and the tests will mainly test the reliability and stability of the aircraft carrier's propulsion and electrical systems, state news agency Xinhua reported.

The tests will last almost two years before the airline launches in another five years. The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is the “largest navy” in the world, surpassing the US with more than 370 battleships, according to the US Department of Defense.

'Heavier, more advanced'

The Fujian aircraft carrier is expected to weigh 79,000 tons and carry the most powerful fighter jet launch system: the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). Currently, the USS Gerald R Ford, the world's largest aircraft carrier, uses the EMALS launch system. The other Chinese aircraft carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, use the ski jump system.

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CATOBAR and STOBAR are two types of aircraft carrier platforms. Short Take-Off Barrier-Assisted Recovery (STOBAR) consists of an elevated ski slope that helps a fighter jet generate lift during takeoff. The STOBAR platform limits the aircraft's take-off weight, which affects its payload.

Meanwhile, the CATOBAR system uses catapults to take off. The CATOBAR-based aircraft carriers have a steam-powered catapult system, which requires more maintenance, is heavy and takes up more space than the alternative. The EMALS catapult provides a smoother and more accurate launch from an aircraft carrier, allowing heavier fighter jets to take off.

China only operates the Chengdu J-15, the 'Flying Shark', fighter jets for its aircraft carrier operations. The J-15 is a fourth-generation fighter jet deployed on its STOBAR aircraft carriers. However, the US has criticized range and payload limitations on flights from airlines equipped with ski slopes instead of catapults.

In 2021, China developed a catapult-based version of the fighter jet and is developing its fifth-generation fighter jets to match the US F-35. The United States Department of Defense, in his latest report on the modernization of the Chinese Navy says that China is reportedly building a fourth aircraft carrier, similar to Fujian, which is expected to be nuclear powered. The Fujian aircraft carrier will be the first conventional-powered platform with the EMALS system.

The Chinese naval expansion

Since the 1990s, China has witnessed a paradigm shift, focusing more on naval expansion than the PLA. This shift was driven by economic growth in the 1990s and early 2000s, which led to an increase in the Chinese presence in the global economy and made it the manufacturing center of the world. The PLAN slowly transitioned from a defensive-offensive arm to a force capable of conducting out-of-area operations, earning the title of a Blue Water Navy.

The modernization, which started thirty years ago, focused on naval, aircraft weapons, fighter jets, doctrine creation, training, multilateral exercises, etc. China's 2015 Defense White Paper called for protecting the Sea Links of Communication (SLOC ) as part of its national policy. interests and said maritime links are vital to China's future. The Indian Ocean, India's maritime backyard, is the tollgate for global East-West trade and China is establishing maritime bases south of India to protect the Maritime Silk Road (MSR).

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is home to approximately 2.5 billion people, with some global economies such as India, a regional power, having a dominant presence in the region. The Strait of Hormuz, Bab-el-Mandeb, the Strait of Malacca and the Mozambique Channel are bottlenecks in the region and routes vital to China's global trade.

“The essential feature that distinguishes the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean or the Pacific Ocean is the subcontinent of India, which extends a thousand miles into the sea. It is the geographical position of India that changes the character of the Indian Ocean.” KM Pannikar, a visionary Indian scholar. The Navy, in its maritime doctrine, says that protecting the IOR is in India's national interest.

The US Department of Defense suggests that while these carriers have value to China, operations in Taiwan do not require such platforms because the country is within range of Chinese aircraft. These platforms assert dominance and are seen as symbols of power. In a confrontation between the US and China, the former will outperform and outmaneuver the PLAN with its prowess. Politically, aircraft carriers could be particularly valuable to China because they project an image of China as a major world power.

China wants its navy “to be able to deter U.S. intervention in a conflict in China's littoral over Taiwan or some other issue, or failing that, to delay the arrival or reduce the effectiveness of intervening U.S. forces,” according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. said.

India's third aircraft carrier

Former Navy Chief Admiral Hari Kumar said last year that the indigenous aircraft carrier-2 (IAC-2) would be a repeat order from INS Vikrant. “We are still working on the question of what size the IAC II should be and what capabilities are desired. But for now we have put a stop to that because we have just commissioned INS Vikrant and we are quite happy with the way the ship has performed. the trials.” “A lot of expertise has been gained in building IAC I. We are seriously looking at a repeat order for IAC I instead of building IAC II. This would allow us to take advantage of the expertise available in the country and we could plow back into the economy.” he added.

INS Vikrant and INS Vikramaditya are built on the STOBAR platform and house the MiG-29K fighter jets. The Navy's version of Rafale and Tejas are expected to replace the MiGs soon.

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Production of INS Vishal would begin soon, but it would be many years before the new carrier would enter service. The size of China's economy and its three times larger defense budget than India's must be taken into account.

The QUAD alliance between the US, India, Australia and Japan for protecting the Indo-Pacific region and the Indian Navy's regular multilateral exercises in the region ensure regional presence and dominance.

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