July 18, 2022: A month ago China formally launched and named its third aircraft carrier, the 80,000-ton Fujian (CV-18). China confirmed that the Fujian is powered by steam turbines that generate the needed electrical power for its EMALS (electromagnetic aircraft launch system) in a conventionally powered carrier. Satellite photos had earlier shown that Fujian has three EMALS catapults. Fujian turned out to be larger than expected, in part because of the space needed for the IEP (integrated electric propulsion) system that supplied the power for EMALS. The only other carrier using EMALS is the American nuclear-powered USS Ford. China was more deliberate in designing their EMALS system and appears to have learned from the mistakes the Americans made.
At 300 meters (984 feet) Fujian appears to be nearly as long as the 333-meter Ford, which displaces about 100,000 tons. Fujian has a smaller crew and operates fewer aircraft. Because it is nuclear powered the Ford moves at higher speeds for sustained periods than the Fujian, which has to dedicate a lot of internal space for fuel. Fujian is expected to be ready for sea-trials by the end of 2022 and enter service in 2023 or 2024.
China already has two carriers in service; Liaoning (CV-16) and the similar Shandong (CV-17), which completed sea trials and entered service at the end of 2019, as it was seen moving past Taiwan. Back then it was assumed that China wanted to build two more similar carriers (CV-18 and 19) which would lose the ski jump deck and instead adopt a catapult. This was the case with Fujian (CV-18) that was already under construction in 2019, and in the water a year later. At that point it appeared that CV-18 would be in service by 2024 but details of its layout and displacement were still vague.
It was believed that CV-18 might be delayed by the decision to use EMALS instead of steam catapults. The U.S. Navy has had problems getting its EMALS to work effectively and the Chinese were believed to be waiting to see how that works out before deciding. That was not the case as CV-18 was built with the IEP, which was only required if EMALS was used. What is unknown is if CV-19 will be similar to CV-18 or use nuclear-power. China has more problems with nuclear-powered surface ships than with EMALS. China has been working on nuclear propulsion for submarines for decades and encountered lots of technical problems that seriously limited the development of an effective Chinese nuclear submarine force. Chinese nuclear power experts informed the government that China did not yet have reliable nuclear power plants for surface ships and it would be a while before that technology was perfected.
With the official recognition of Fujian, it became clear that China probably would have five or six non-nuclear-powered carriers by 2030, with all but two of them based on the Fujian.
Since carriers spend a lot of time in port getting upgrades and maintenance, you need three or more in order to guarantee having at least two available at all times for operations. China has already built or is building enough escort and support ships, along with air wings, to keep several carrier task forces, each built around one carrier, busy while one or more carriers were sidelined by months of maintenance and upgrades. China announced in 2020 that their first carrier, a rebuilt Russian carrier, would not remain a training carrier but would be equipped and manned with a crew that would enable it to also serve as a combat carrier in an emergency.
Fujian was not a complete surprise. As early as 2014 there were official photos of carrier model displayed at an official event. The detailed model had the hull number 18 and the ship looked similar to an American Nimitz class CVN. The Chinese CVN has four catapults and three elevators and much other evidence of being nuclear and very similar to the Nimitz class. This was an early Chinese Navy proposal for a CVN and that has apparently been refined to something that is similar to the Nimitz.