China made a big statement about its naval ambitions with the recent launch of its third and most advanced aircraft carrier.
The Fujian – by far China’s biggest, most modern and most powerful aircraft carrier to date – is the 80,000-ton jewel in the crown of a military expansion that has seen Beijing grow its navy into the world’s largest.
Its new combat systems – such as an electromagnetic catapult-assisted launch system – show China is fast catching up with the United States, experts say, and will give it the ability to launch more aircraft, more quickly, and with more ammunition.
That should be enough to give any would-be opponent pause for thought, especially given China’s increasing aggression in its territorial disputes with Japan in the East China Sea, a host of Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea, and its repeated harassment of the self-governed island of Taiwan – where it has pointedly refused to rule out an invasion.
Still, while the launch of the Fujian amid much fanfare was clearly meant as a message to Beijing’s rivals, analysts caution against swallowing too much of the hype just yet.
Firstly, the Fujian likely won’t be operational for another three to four years, said Carl Schuster, a former US Navy captain and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center. And even when it is operational, its size will make it an obvious target – any enemy will be keenly aware that sinking such an iconic vessel would be as much of a morale blow as a military disaster for China.
Then there is the simple fact that, impressive as they seem, aircraft carriers aren’t necessarily best suited to what experts see as the most plausible conflict scenarios in the near future – including clashes in the East and South China Seas and an invasion of Taiwan.
Essentially, experts say, the Fujian might be China’s biggest ship, but it’s probably not the biggest problem on the minds of US naval commanders right now.
Here are four types of ship at China’s disposal that arguably pose a far greater threat to US naval dominance.
Type 055 destroyer
Launched in 2017, these 13,000-ton stealth guided-missile destroyers are considered by many to be the most powerful surface combatants in the world.
The Type 055, big enough to be considered a cruiser by NATO standards, is equipped with 112 vertical launch tubes that can used to fire everything from anti-ship missiles to long-range land-attack missiles.
“This ship in particular has a sophisticated design, stealth features, radars, and a large missile inventory. It is larger and more powerful than most US, Japanese, and South Korean destroyers,” RAND Corp. senior analyst Timothy Heath told CNN in 2018, when Beijing launched two of the warships in a single day – a testament to China’s impressive shipbuilding capabilities.
A US Congressional Research Service report in March said at least 10 Type 055s are thought to have been launched or are under construction.
The deployment of the Lhasa, the second of Beijing’s five active Type 055s, to the Sea of Japan for drills amid growing tensions over Taiwan, was championed by China’s state-run Global Times tabloid last week.
“The ship has achieved full operational capability and demonstrated its capabilities in deterring possible foreign military interference in the Taiwan Strait at a time when the US and Japan have been repeatedly provoking China over the Taiwan question,” the Global Times reported.
The potency of the Type 055 was underlined in footage that emerged on social media in April. It showed one launching what naval analyst H I Sutton said was a hypersonic YJ-21 anti-ship ballistic missile – a weapon often referred to as a “carrier killer.”
Global Times played down the footage, describing the missiles as part of the country’s defensive strategy.
“If the US does not make military provocations against China, including over the Taiwan question, it does not need to worry about the missiles,” it said.
Type 039 submarine
These Yuan-class submarines are almost silent diesel-electric-powered boats with capabilities that could prove tough for US military planners to deal with.
Beijing has built 17 of the Type 39A/B subs, with plans to increase that total to 25 in the next three years, according to the US Defense Department’s 2021 report to Congress on China’s military power.
“The Type 039 SSs provide formidable ‘defense in depth’” in waters close to China, “and they appear to be developing some capability to engage” US forces farther out to sea, Schuster said.
The subs are equipped with air independent propulsion (AIP), which means they do not need to surface as frequently to get the air required for diesel combustion, which can then power their batteries.
“When operating on batteries, AIP-equipped submarines are almost silent, with the only noise coming from the shaft bearings, propeller, and flow around the hull,” US Navy officers Michael Walker and Austin Krusz wrote in a 2018 report for the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.
China is pushing to launch more of the super-quiet subs, which are armed with anti-ship cruise missiles, the Defense Department report said.
One potent method of attack used by the Type 039 is to fire a “wake-homing” torpedo across the stern, or back, of a target vessel. The torpedo then follows in the wake of the target ship before exploding near its propulsion and steering systems.
Because surface ships detect submarines and torpedoes by sound waves, wake-homing torpedoes are particularly tough to defend against.
The advances in Chinese submarines come just as the US Navy is experiencing trouble with its anti-submarine capabilities.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday told Congress last month that the service wants to scrap nine of its littoral combat ships, some of the newest ships in the US fleet, because their anti-submarine systems “did not work out technically.”
Merchant ferries might not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think about deadly naval capabilities – but therein lies their power.
To invade Taiwan, China would likely need to transport an invading force of hundreds of thousands of men – some analysts have suggested more than a million would be needed.
Various analysts – and US government reports – have concluded the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) naval fleet is not up to that task.
But what China does have is a massive fleet of civilian ferries that could be swiftly converted for military use – and according to some, may even have been designed for just that possibility.
“China’s biggest ferry shipbuilder stated publicly in 2015 that one of its largest roll-on/roll-off ferries was built for dual military and civilian purposes, and one of China’s largest ferry operators has been similarly described as having a dual civil-military development philosophy,” Thomas Shugart, a former US Navy submarine commander now a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, wrote in a 2021 essay for War on the Rocks.
He added that civilian ferry companies operating in the Yellow and South China Seas have already been organized into PLA auxiliary units.
Crunching the numbers, said Shugart, was staggering. He estimated that using civilian ships would give China an extra 1.1 million displacement tonnes. That figure is more than three times the displacement tonnage of all of China’s amphibious assault ships put together. And if China tapped Hong Kong’s roll-on/roll-off vehicle carriers it could gain an extra 370,000 tonnes of sealift, according to Shugart.
Is that enough to take Taiwan by force?
That is hard to know. But Shugart said it did answer one question.
“How many transport (ships) does the Chinese military have? Very probably, more than you might think.”
Ferries aren’t the only supposedly civilian vessels military planners have on their radars.
Experts also accuse China of creating a maritime militia, made up of more than a hundred vessels supposedly engaged in commercial fishing, to enforce its wishes in disputed seas.
The militia – which Beijing denies even exists – is made up of at least 122 vessels and likely as many as 174, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But the actual number could be even greater. Various experts suspected the militia’s involvement when more than 200 Chinese fishing boats crowded the waters around Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea in early 2021. The reef is claimed by both China and the Philippines, which described the presence of the boats as a “clear provocative action.”
“The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia don’t fish,” Schuster told CNN last year. “They have automatic weapons aboard and reinforced hulls, making them very dangerous at close range. Also, they have a top speed of around 18-22 knots, making them faster than 90% of the world’s fishing boats.”
The militia has two main parts: professional militia boats and actual fishing boats employed by the Chinese military under a subsidy scheme, according to a November report from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The professionals lead such activities as harassing foreign drilling ships or blocking foreign fishing boats, and the subsidized fishers bring pressure in numbers, the CSIS report said.
And with the world’s largest fishing fleet, China has plenty of reserves to call on.
About that carrier again
Still, none of this is to say that the launch of the Fujian is not a significant moment.
As in the US, aircraft carriers will in time become the centerpiece of the PLA’s navy – and a symbol of what the modern Chinese military is capable of, Schuster said.
“Fujian’s launch should be viewed for what it portends rather than its limited immediate impact,” Schuster said.
“China has now launched three carriers and brought two into full operational status during a period where the US Navy has struggled to bring one new unit to full operational status,” he said.
Schuster was referring to the USS Gerald Ford, a supercarrier that has been plagued by problems since its commissioning in 2017 (by which time it was already three years late).
The supercarrier is yet to make its first operational deployment, though that is expected this fall.
Meanwhile, China forges ahead.
“They are building their navy at a faster rate than the US and all of its allies,” Schuster said.
“Imperfect, but a good foundation.”