China’s advanced aircraft carrier Fujian signals sea trial readiness

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27th November 2023 – (Beijing) China’s state-of-the-art aircraft carrier, the Fujian, has reportedly shifted several metres from its standard docking position, sparking speculation among analysts that the warship could be preparing for a sea trial. The carrier was observed to have moved approximately 27 metres (89 feet) away from the quay at the Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai on 19th November, according to imagery from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite, before returning to its original position within two days.

Aircraft carriers form a crucial part of the Chinese navy’s plans for open sea operations. Military manoeuvres suggest that such carriers would be instrumental in any strategy for a potential assault on Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing considers part of its territory and has pledged to reunify with mainland China, by force if necessary.

The Fujian stands as China’s first carrier outfitted with electromagnetic catapults for launching aircraft from its deck, a significant technological leap over the less energy-efficient steam catapults used by the US Navy’s Nimitz-class carriers since the 1970s. Its operational counterparts, the Liaoning and the Shandong, employ ski-jump take-off ramps.

Over the weekend, undated video clips surfaced on the social media platform Weibo, seemingly showing the Fujian conducting what appeared to be a dead-load test, which involves launching a wheeled vehicle of the same mass as an aircraft to simulate a plane taking off. The clips depicted a water splash in front of the Fujian’s bow, but not a vehicle exiting the flight deck.

H.I. Sutton, a naval analyst who first noted the Fujian’s movement by tugs, suggested on his website that this could imply the vessel was on the brink of sea trials. Sea trials are used to assess the performance of a ship’s systems and components, a process which, for the Fujian, is expected to last more than a year.

Song Zhongping, a former PLA instructor, posited that the Fujian might have been relocated from the quay specifically to launch the test vehicles. “Catapulting the small vehicle itself is a step in the testing of the aircraft carrier for sea trials,” he noted, adding that signs like the docking of the Fujian’s support ship, the Lidaoyuan, behind the Fujian in the Jiangnan shipyard since March, indicated that sea trials could commence soon.

The Fujian, a colossal 316-metre supercarrier, was launched in June 2022. The vessel is significantly larger than the PLA’s two operational aircraft carriers and is the first to be equipped with an electromagnetic aircraft launch system.