It was 2016 when China started building its 2nd aircraft carrier, but are they already getting ready for a third one? Apparently yes.

New satellite images suggest that China’s building up its naval airbase and is getting ready for their fourth aircraft carrier. A video has been circulating online showing China’s KJ-600 on a test flight over the northwestern city of Xian, the headquarters of Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation.

According to defense experts, this is a clear sign China’s getting ready for expansion. The satellites in March also spotted two FC-31 Gyrfalcon stealth fighters together with a couple of J-15 carrier-based fighter jets at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) facility in Liaoning province. Experts assume these are intended for the new aircraft carrier as well.

There is ongoing speculations, too, that the FC-31s will be the main carrier-based fighter jets assigned to the new aircraft carrier. However, a source close to the Navy said the J-15s are more likely to be the only ship-borne carrier for future assignments.

“The FC-31 is still a test aircraft that is yet to be reserved by the PLA Air Force or Navy under their formal deployment programmes,” the source confirmed.

As for the J-15 Flying Shark, it’s basically a copycat of the Russian Sukhoi-33 manufactured in the 1970s.

“Even the FC-31 imitates the shape and design of the American F-35 [stealth fighter]. Russian aircraft designer Mikhail Pogosyan, who designed the Su-33 and other new generation aircraft, told me that there is a rule that the performance of copycats would never surpass the original designs. How can the SAC convince the PLA Navy to trust them?” notes Asian Defence Editor-in-Chief Andrei Chang.

The Xian KJ-600 is a Chinese-made twin-propeller, high-wing, quad-tail military aircraft particularly designed for cargo. These are intended to be deployed on Type 003 aircraft carriers (aka Fujian).

Last month, as we’ve reported here at SOFREP, the Fujian has become China’s show of naval “bravado and strength.” The national TV proudly stated Fujian is the country’s very first domestically made carrier, and with its supposed success, it’s highly possible that a fourth Type 003 is launching in the next couple of months.

What’s the plan?

China has been expanding its influence and military scope in the Asia Pacific (APAC). Back in 2017, when the Trump administration withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Deal, it was China who tried to vow to fill the voice. President Xi Jinping had projected himself as a reliable “economic” leader, but over the years, clashes with other APAC countries emerged.

Just as SOFREP has also covered last week, Australia is on high alert with Chinese intercepting legal P-8 Australian routine flights. There’s also a lot of tension with other South East Asian countries, like the Philippines.

Chinese Naval Ship
Chinese naval ship 152 visiting Stockholm, Sweden, in October 2015. (Source: Axel Pettersson/Wikimedia)

With China amassing significant military ground and influence in the region, many are asking why the country’s building up its naval powers at this speed.

A retired senior colonel of the PLA chimes in. According to Zhou Bo, also a former director at the international military cooperation office, China’s speed at building vessels is tied to the country’s goals to expand overseas interests. He said China doesn’t have the capacity to hold all of its naval carriers, so there’s no other option than to move them out to different ports.

“The aircraft carrier itself is an open sea combat platform,” he was quoted as saying on Sunday by state-owned China Global Television Network. “It is impossible for us to design or manufacture such a large aircraft carrier and just put it at home.

“Therefore, in the future, Chinese aircraft carriers will definitely appear on the high seas of the world. The training for our aircraft carriers in the Pacific Ocean is going further and further, and has gone beyond the first island chain.”

Zhou confirms these are being done to protect China from any maritime threats.

“Whether the threats are from the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea or even the distant Indian Ocean, they are real.”

China is pursuing its aggressive expansion plan to build a “real blue-water navy,” according to South Morning China Post. They’re looking to build at least six aircraft carrier battle groups by 2035. And as the Pentagon has confirmed, the Chinese Navy holds the world’s biggest maritime force, with 355 vessels. To add, they will be adding 420 ships in the next four years and another 460 by 2030.

Zhuo said China’s laying a strong naval foundation in its military. They had previously focused on land and air forces but also wanted to strengthen their forces in the sea.

“The reason we have so many warships, including the development of aircraft carriers, is that we are going to the ocean. This is related to our huge national interests and our international responsibilities as a major country.”

A Final Note on This New Carrier

While the Fujian certainly changed the game for China’s navy it does not herald a new age in carrier design for the world.  In fact, it’s about as modern as anything the US built in the 1970s.

The Fujian is a conventionally powered carrier that runs on fuel oil to generate steam for propulsion and electricity. This means to operate this carrier far from shore for any length of time, it will have to be accompanied by several fleet oilers to refuel her at sea.   The oilers will have to be protected by escorting vessels. This is a rather serious disadvantage to a conventionally powered carrier in a war and was the primary reason the US navy went to all nuclear-powered carrier fleet.  A US submarine could torpedo and sink these oilers on their way to or from the carrier and would leave her high and dry if she didn’t return to port. As a precaution, the Fujian’s operational range gets shorter and shorter the further she travels from her home waters because the carrier will calculate the total fuel load minus the oil needed to get her back to port as her “Bingo” fuel level.  So she isn’t going to steam until her tanks are dry but need to constantly refill them above that Bingo fuel level the further into the Pacific she sails. A single carrier like the Fujian may need up to four fast oilers along with escorting destroyers to remain in service and operational at sea.

There is no way to know how fast the carrier is, or what her fuel consumption might be until China conducts endurance trials at sea with the carrier.  And it may be less fuel efficient than they were hoping.

The US has bases all over the world that can replenish our carriers operating far from their bases with food, crew changes, spare parts, and even replacement aircraft, China does not. This really limits how far the Fujian will be able to operate from its home waters.

China says it will take 3-4 years before the Fujian is operational, it may take even longer.  Large aircraft carriers are the largest and most complex pieces of machinery on the planet.  When we launch a carrier it can take years to work out all the bugs in the machinery because there really is no way to test these systems on the beach. You have to go to sea with them operationally and see how they work out.  We have been building aircraft carriers for more than 100 years, and with the most experience on the planet we still have teething problems with each carrier that puts to sea.

The Fujian is said to have electromagnetic launchers(EML) on board but we notice some things in the image above that call that into question.  First, you will notice that they are covered up suggesting that they have not yet been installed or that China does not want them to be seen.  If they do have a new EML system, which would be a major improvement over the conventional stream system you would think they would want to show them off.

The US has been testing and developing EML systems for 12 years, while China only began working on this for their new carrier in 2015.  Supposedly, they have managed to solve the major problem with EMLs which is the storage of the enormous energy charge needed to power them. This generally requires the kind of power that only nuclear reactors can supply. China claims it solved this problem with a newly developed medium voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission network to replace the original AC current-based system generally used on naval vessels.  They also claim to be using a series of huge 50-megawatt flywheels they invented to store the electric charge to power the catapult.

When we look at the picture above though, we notice how long the catapult run tracks seem to be compared to those on the USS Gerald R Ford, which is our first carrier with an EML.  On the Ford, the run tracks seem to be about a third shorter.  That would make sense for a steam catapult system and also explain why they are covered up.

Finally, US carriers like the USS Ford have three deck elevators and four catapults on their flight deck.  The Fujian only has two elevators and three catapults.  This will serve to significantly reduce the rate at which it can launch and recover aircraft for missions. This sortie rate is the gold standard of combat operations for a carrier, getting your planes up in the air and on their way to strike a target. It will take the Fujian longer to launch and recover aircraft and when launching a full strike, planes will have to orbit around the carrier longer burning fuel waiting for the rest of the strike to launch which will shorten their range. On the return, they will also have to reserve more fuel to orbit waiting for the deck to clear with only two elevators instead of three to take them below.