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Taiwan Eyes New Chinese Aircraft Carrier as Major Threat

FILE — This screen grab made from video released by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV shows the launch ceremony of the Fujian, a People's Liberation Army aircraft carrier, at a shipyard in Shanghai, June 17, 2022.
FILE — This screen grab made from video released by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV shows the launch ceremony of the Fujian, a People's Liberation Army aircraft carrier, at a shipyard in Shanghai, June 17, 2022.

A new Taiwanese military assessment highlights the threat posed to the self-governing island by China's third and most advanced aircraft carrier, the Fujian, which is expected to enter service after completing sea trials sometime next year.

The assessment, laid out in Taiwan's National Defense Report 2023, also calls for developing a decentralized command platform across military services based on lessons learned from observing Russia's war on Ukraine.

The report, released this week, says the Chinese-designed Fujian incorporates major technological advances over the People's Liberation Army Navy's two existing carriers, both based on a Russian design.

Most significantly, aircraft taking off from the ship will be boosted into flight with three electromagnetic catapult devices, which are more effective than the steam catapult devices used on other carriers. To date, electromagnetic catapults are used only by the United States on its most advanced Gerald R. Ford-class carriers.

The added power of the catapults allows for heavier aircraft and shorter runways, which combined with other design improvements will allow the Fujian to carry as many as 40 jet fighters, according to Taiwan's report. China's two previous carriers can handle 18 and 32 fighters respectively.

"This is a major maritime threat that we must actively deal with in the future," said Major General Huang Wen-Chi, the assistant deputy chief with the General Staff for Intelligence of Taiwan's Defense Ministry, in releasing the report this week.

The report says the Fujian will enhance China's ability to seal off the Taiwan Strait, potentially delaying or preventing the U.S. military from entering the theater to help defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.

While Taiwan's military sees the vessel as a major threat, independent analysts point out that much of the technology is new to China and so far untested. Even the U.S. Navy encountered many surprises when it began using electromagnetic catapults, said Kitsch Liao, assistant director of the Global China Hub at the Atlantic Council.

"A problem that [the U.S. military] often encounters is that the catapult is too accurate," Liao told VOA. "Every time it is ejected, it will cause a lot of structural stress on the aircraft, which may damage the aircraft very quickly. The U.S. military has its own way of solving this problem, and I am not sure whether the PLA has a way to solve it."

China also lags far behind the United States in training its pilots to fly off a carrier like the Fujian, according to Richard Chen Yeong Kang, a former Taiwanese Navy admiral and currently an adviser to the Taiwan Center for Security Studies.

He told VOA that compared with U.S. Navy pilots — who perform missions at sea for many years — PLA Navy pilots perform missions from carriers only two to three times a year. He estimated the combat effectiveness of the Chinese pilots at only one-third that of their American counterparts and said it may reach only one-half after five years.

Liao estimated it will take two years of training for the Fujian to achieve real ocean-going combat capabilities.

The National Defense Report also recommended that Taiwan improve its ability to survive an attack by developing a "common operating picture" allowing better communication and coordination across the territory's military services and with its allies.

Taiwan confirmed in May that, with American assistance, it will obtain the NATO Link-22 radio system to connect with the U.S. to form a common operating picture. According to the Financial Times in June, the U.S. is expected to begin delivering four MQ-9B drones to Taiwan in 2025.

By then, Taiwan's Defense Ministry has said, the island expects to begin sharing real-time intelligence with the United States and Japan and building a common operating picture with those two countries.

Lin Ying-yu, assistant professor at the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University and a member of an advisory committee to the National Defense Report, said that in the early stages of a war, the PLA would likely give priority to attacking Taiwan's main military command center and early warning radars in Taipei.

That makes it imperative for Taiwan to switch to a decentralized command and control system, he said, although that will require improved personnel training and upgraded equipment.

"It is already difficult for Taiwan to conduct joint operations," Lin told VOA. "What's more, how do you conduct good command when all branches of the military are under attack and in a chaotic situation?

"In addition to technology, it is important for personnel to be able to communicate across branches," he said.

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.