Testing of the catapults on the Chinese aircraft carrier Fujian has begun. This is an important step forward in the construction of this ship, which is set to be the first carrier in the People's Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, that launches aircraft in this way rather than via a ski jump at the bow.
Videos and pictures emerged over the weekend showing a red-colored catapult test 'truck' on Fujian's deck. One clip, apparently taken by a passenger in a plane flying past overhead, looks to have caught the impact of the test vehicle into the basin where the carrier is currently moored. Fujian, also known as the Type 003, was launched in June 2022 and is now in the final stages of being fitted out at Changxing Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai.
Weighted trucks like the one seen on Fujian's deck in the new imagery are commonly used by shipbuilders and navies elsewhere in the world, including the U.S. Navy, to test catapults on carriers as part of their construction or following maintenance. They offer a way to make sure the catapults are functioning as intended, at least on a core level, without risking the loss of an actual aircraft.
The domestically developed Fujian is China's first carrier to feature a catapult-assisted takeoff but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) configuration. The PLAN has two aircraft carriers already in service, the Type 001 Liaoning and Type 002 Shandong, but both are short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) types where aircraft are launched with the help of a ski jump.
The video appearing to show the splash from the test truck hitting the water after being launched from Fujian's deck also notably does not appear to show any residual puffs of steam. This highlights the carrier's use of an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), rather than traditional steam-powered catapults.
EMALS, a capability currently only found operationally on the U.S. Navy's supercarrier USS Gerald R. Ford and that has proven hard to master, presents a host of advantages over catapults that use steam. This includes increased sortie-generation rates due to lower reset times and less pronounced demands mechanically on a ship's underlying design with the elimination of the need for systems to generate and move large volumes of steam.
In addition, EMALS offers the ability to more finely tune the amount of force exerted on an aircraft at launch. This helps reduce wear and tear on individual aircraft and also expands the range of types that can be safely launched, especially on the smaller and lighter end of the spectrum. This could be very advantageous when it comes to adding drones of many sizes to Fujian's air wing, something the PLAN has a clear interest in doing in the future.
Any type of catapult system will allow for the launching of aircraft with much higher gross weights than would be possible with a ski jump.
The PLAN has previously experimented with steam and EMALS catapult systems at land-based test sites, including at its naval aviation hub at Huangdicun Naval Air Base in northeastern China. Satellite imagery shows that aircraft carrier catapult testing on the ground at a site in Shanghai dates back to at least the 2008-2009 timeframe. Test trucks similar to the one seen in the new imagery of Fujian have been observed previously at both Huangdicun and the Shanghai site.
The exact composition of Fujian's carrier air wing remains to be seen, but the PLAN has been taking steps already to ensure it is ready for when the ship enters service. A catapult-capable version of the Shenyang J-15 fighter, the J-15T, already exists. The baseline J-15, derived from the Soviet Su-33 Flanker-D carrier fighter, is already in Chinese service and flying from Liaoning and Shandong, though there have been questions raised in the past about its performance.
A navalized derivative of the Chinese Shenyang J-35 stealth fighter designed to be launched via catapult is also in development. These jets are expected to be a key component of Fujian's air wing and will give the carrier a major boost in capability over the PLAN's existing flattops.
The naval J-35 is an evolution of a design known as the known as the FC-31, which first emerged in the early 2010s. Evidence of PLAN interest in the design has steadily grown, including satellite imagery showing what appeared to be a pair of J-35/FC-31s at Huangdicun in November 2021, as seen below.
The still-in-development KJ-600 carrier-based airborne early warning and control aircraft also looks set to embark on the Fujian after it enters service. This aircraft, roughly analogous to the U.S. E-2 Hawkeye, represents another major step forward for the PLAN, as it will provide critical airborne surveillance and aerial battle management capabilities that its carrier strike groups currently lack.
The PLAN's aircraft carrier ambitions, which are also central to its efforts to expand the scope and reach of its operations further and further from the Chinese mainland, extend well beyond Fujian and whatever aircraft it might carry. Multiple renderings of future aircraft carrier designs from the Changxing Jiangnan shipyard have already emerged. These show configurations in line with other current and planned Western supercarriers like the USS Gerald R. Ford and France's future New Generation Aircraft Carrier.
There are repeated discussions about the potential for China's next aircraft carrier, commonly referred to currently as the Type 004, to be nuclear-powered. Ford, and every one of the U.S. Navy's 10 older Nimitz class carriers, as well as the French New Generation Aircraft Carrier design, have nuclear propulsion.
When Fujian enters service, it will make the PLAN the second largest operator of fixed-wing aircraft carriers anywhere in the world behind the United States. Russia has just one carrier, the long-sidelined and accident-prone Admiral Kuznetsov. France also has one, Charles de Gaulle, while the Royal Navy in the United Kingdom has HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales.
The PLAN will also be one of just three navies worldwide to currently operate CATOBAR types, with the others being those of the United States and France. By using EMALS on Fujian, the Chinese are set to entirely skip over steam-powered catapults.
The Indian Navy is set to get a CATOBAR carrier in the 2030s and the United Kingdom has been looking into the possibility of adding catapult launch capability to its Queen Elizabeth class flattops, which presently have a STOVL configuration. Past reports have indicated that India's future CATOBAR INS Vishal will also have EMALS catapults, which will be a feature on France's New Generation Aircraft Carrier, as well.
A number of countries operate smaller short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) type carriers or amphibious warfare ships with large flight decks that can support certain fixed-wing aircraft, like the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, as well as rotary wing types. Others are now pursuing similar designs centered on air wings filled with drones. Turkey's TCG Anadolu, initially designed as a big deck amphibious warfare ship, was completed with a 'roller system' to help launch uncrewed fixed-wing aircraft and is a prime example of this 'drone carrier' trend.
The PLAN has an interest in 'drone carriers' as a complement to traditional flattops like Fujian. Past reports have indicated that this ship could be a derivative of the Type 075 amphibious warfare ship, sometimes referred to as the Type 076, optimized for this role and also featuring EMALS catapults.
When it comes to Fujian, its expected commissioning date remains unclear. When the ship was launched in 2022, Chinese officials said this milestone would come after sea trials.
The catapult tests now underway put Fujian one step closer to entering service and becoming the PLAN's most capable operational carrier to date.
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