China launched its third aircraft carrier on Friday morning in a televised ceremony.
The Chinese Ministry of Defense announced on their website that the aircraft carrier launched at around 11 a.m. Beijing time on Friday. Construction on the ship began at some point in the mid-2010s, though the exact start date is unclear. With the launch of the Type 003 aircraft carrier, named “Fujian,” the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is one step closer to welcoming the new carrier into its naval forces.
The launch finally came after outside observers spent months tracking the ship’s progress and noting hints as to the possible timeline for the ship to finally hit the water.
Some observers had previously speculated the ship would launch on April 23 to coincide with the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the PLAN. Anticipation for that April launch date fell off as an outbreak of COVID-19 hit Shanghai. Last month, when China’s Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) ordered the berths at the No. 3 and No. 4 docks at the Jiangnan Shipyard on Shanghai’s Changxing Island to be cleared for an upcoming operation, some observers began to speculate the aircraft carrier’s launch would coincide with China’s Dragon Boat Festival. This week, after Chinese authorities fully flooded the drydock where the Fujian was built, one observer speculated that the ship might launch on June 15, to coincide with Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s 69th birthday. The final launch date ultimately overshot Xi’s birthday by two days.
The Fujian is China’s second fully-domestically produced aircraft carrier and the first Chinese aircraft carrier to employ a catapult aircraft launch system. The catapult launch method allows carrier-borne aircraft to launch with larger payloads of fuel and weapons, allowing them extended strike range.
Drone footage taken of the carrier before the launch ceremony showed three long box-like structures at the front of the ship, where the catapult systems would be. Festive streamers could also be seen hanging from the ship.
While the aircraft carrier has now been floated out of its drydock and launched into the water, it still has to undergo sea trials which will likely take years to complete before the ship can enter full operational service with the PLAN. The Chinese Defense Ministry did not provide an exact timeline for these requisite tests but said the carrier will undergo its mooring tests and sea trials as scheduled.
The Chinese state-run Global Times touted the launch of the aircraft carrier Fujian as another major step in the growth of China’s blue-water navy and China’s shipbuilding and defense industries. The Global Times drew comparisons between the Fujian and the newest U.S. Gerald R. Ford-class carriers, noting both use an electromagnetic catapult launch system instead of a steam-powered system, but that the U.S. carriers are nuclear-powered.
“This means the Fujian, which is widely believed to use conventional power, is still a level behind the Ford-class, but it has become the first Chinese aircraft carrier to come close to rival its U.S. counterpart,” the Chinese outlet wrote, citing commentary from unnamed analysts.
In 2019, China overtook the U.S. as the country with the largest naval force, though the U.S. still has an edge in terms of modernization and capabilities. The U.S. currently has 11 full-sized aircraft carriers that can launch helicopters, traditional carrier-borne fighter jets and larger support aircraft like the E-2 Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft. The U.S. also has nine smaller Wasp-class and America-class amphibious assault ships, which act as carriers for helicopters and short-take-off jets like the AV-8B Harrier II and F-35 Lightning II.