- China’s and India’s navies have both received new aircraft carriers in recent weeks.
- The Chinese carrier Fujian and the Indian flattop Vikrant are both domestically designed and built.
- It will take a while for either carrier to reach its full potential, but here’s how they stack up.
On June 17, China officially launched its newest and most advanced aircraft carrier, Fujian.
Fujian is China’s third aircraft carrier and the first to be totally designed and built domestically. It symbolizes the Chinese military’s rapid expansion and is seen as a potential rival to the US Navy’s nuclear-powered supercarriers.
But China isn’t the only Asian country getting a new carrier this year. In the final days of July, India’s navy took delivery of its new carrier, Vikrant.
Vikrant is also domestically designed and built, and its arrival is a major milestone for India, which is Asia’s second largest military power and shares a long and contentious border with China.
In addition to their many improvements over their predecessors, both carriers are important firsts for their countries. It will be years before either is fully operational, but here’s how the two flattops stack up.
A Type 003-class carrier, Fujian is about 1,035 feet long and displaces about 80,000 tons fully loaded. This makes it slightly larger than its predecessors, the Type 001 Liaoning and Type 002 Shandong, which were about 1,000 feet long and displaced 60,000 to 70,000 tons.
Liaoning is a Soviet-designed Kuznetsov-class carrier that China bought in 1998 and modified extensively before commissioning it into service in 2012. Shandong was based on Liaoning and entered service in 2019.
All three of China’s carriers use conventional engines rather than nuclear reactors, limiting the power they can generate and the time they can spend at sea.
Among Fujian’s upgrades is a command island that is slimmer and more refined than those of its predecessors, freeing up space on the flight deck.
The most striking change, however, is the replacement of the short takeoff but arrested recovery (STOBAR) system, and the ski-jump ramp it requires, used on both Liaoning and Shandong.
Fujian has a completely flat deck and three catapults, reflecting China’s effort to adopt the catapult-assisted takeoff but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) system used on US aircraft carriers.
STOBAR allows jets to take off on shorter decks but limits how much fuel and weaponry they can carry when taking off. This is especially problematic for China, as the only fixed-wing carrier-based aircraft it has in service, the J-15, is already the heaviest carrier-based fighter in service.
A CATOBAR system can launch jets with bigger payloads and more fuel. It can also launch larger aircraft, like those suited for airborne early warning and control.
Parts of Fujian’s flight deck were covered during the launch ceremony, obscuring its catapults, but they are believed to use an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) that can launch aircraft more efficiently and more frequently than steam-powered catapults.
Until Fujian, the only carriers with EMALS were those of the US Navy’s nuclear-powered Ford-class. Chinese sailors’ unfamiliarity with the CATOBAR system and the challenges the US Navy has had with EMALS suggest it will be some time before Fujian reaches its full potential.
The exact size and makeup of the Fujian’s air wing is still not known, but it is expected to be larger than the roughly 36 aircraft carried by both Liaoning and Shandong and to include J-15 fighters and Z-18 helicopters.
In the future, Fujian’s air wing may comprise J-35 stealth fighters (a naval version of the FC-31), Z-20F helicopters, and, thanks to EMALS, KJ-600 airborne early-warning aircraft and even carrier-based drones.
Vikrant was officially launched in 2013 and is expected to be commissioned on August 15, but it won’t be India’s first or only carrier.
India had former British carriers in service from 1961 to 1997 and from 1987 to 2016, and INS Vikramaditya, a modified Kiev-class carrier purchased from Russia and commissioned in 2013, is the Indian navy’s current flagship.
At 860 feet long and with a full displacement of about 45,000 tons, Vikrant is the biggest warship India has ever constructed. It was designed and built by India’s largest shipbuilder, Cochin Shipyard Limited, and 76% of its components were developed domestically, according to India’s Defense Ministry.
Vikrant is crewed by about 160 officers and 1,400 sailors and is powered by four gas turbines capable of generating 88 megawatts of power and of pushing it to a top speed of 28 knots. It can carry about 30 jets and helicopters, and like INS Vikramaditya, it uses a STOBAR system with a ski-jump ramp.
Vikrant’s initial air wing is expected to be made up of MiG-29Ks, the carrier version of the Russian-made MiG-29. The jet has served on INS Vikramaditya but its poor track record has led India to seek 26 new carrier-based fighters — the finalists are Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and Dassault Aviation’s Rafale-M.
The F/A-18 has been the backbone of US Navy carrier aviation for decades, and Boeing has demonstrated its ability to operate on STOBAR decks in India. The Rafale-M has operated on the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which uses catapults, and has been demonstrated on an Indian STOBAR system. (India’s air force already operates the Rafale.)
India’s HAL twin-engine fighter has also been proposed as an indigenous aircraft for Vikrant. The new carrier’s air wing is likely to be rounded out by a mix of KA-31, MH-60R, and HAL Dhruv helicopters.
INS Vikrant is expected to play a major part in boosting the Indian Navy’s capabilities in the face of a rising Chinese threat in the waters around India.