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Home / Opinion / Views /  How India's Vikrant stacks up against China's new Fujian

China launched its most advanced and biggest aircraft carrier, Fujian, on June 17. Next month, Indian Navy received its new aircraft carrier IAC Vikrant which will be inducted next week.

Two competing powers getting an aircraft carrier each less than two months apart calls for a comparison, even though all the details about the capabilities of the carriers have not been revealed by either country.

Fujian is far bigger than Vikrant

Vikrant has a full displacement of close to 45,000 tonnes. It has a top speed of around 28 knots and a cruising speed of 18 knots with an endurance of about 7,500 nautical miles. It is 262 metres long, 62 metres wide and has a height of 59 metres. Its air wing can operate 30 aircraft. It has over 2,300 compartments, designed for a crew of around 1,700 people.

IAC Vikrant is India's first indigenously built aircraft carrier.
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IAC Vikrant is India's first indigenously built aircraft carrier.

While Chinese state media has not released detailed specifications of Fujian, SCMP reports that satellite images show the new carrier is about 320 metres long and 73 metres wide. It has a full displacement of more than 80,000 tonnes. No details are available about the size of Fujian's air wing but it must be bigger than those on China's two other aircraft carriers. Shandong carries 36 aircraft while Liaoning 40.

From the available information, it's obvious Fujian beats Vikrant in size as well as capacity.

Vikrant's conventional aircraft launch tech

Vikrant uses the Short Take-off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) system to launch aircrafts. STOBAR system uses a ski-jump ramp which throws the aircraft up off the carrier. That's why the edge of the carrier deck curves slightly upwards. Arrestor wires are used for landing of the aircraft. It is an easy to maintain system but it limits the types of aircraft that can be used for a carrier. Indian aircraft carrier Vikramaditya and China's Shandong and Liaoning carriers too use this system. But Fujian has a modern technology for launching aircraft.

EMALS, Fujian's game-changer tech

Fujian is equipped with a technology that only the latest American Ford Class aircraft carriers have. It's called EMALS, or electromagnetic aircraft launch system. It's a step ahead of what Vikrant has got, the conventional ski-jump ramp for launching aircraft.

Unlike Vikrant, Fujian has a flat deck because it uses catapults to launch aircraft as it has CATOBAR (Catapult-Assisted Take-off But Arrested Recovery) system. For its catapults, instead of steam, Fujian uses EMALS which is a more advanced and efficient way to launch aircraft with electromagnetic force.

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EMALS gives a clear edge to Fujian over Vikrant because this technology can launch bigger aircraft, those with heavier payload or more fuel, drones, bigger surveillance aircraft, and heavy transport aircraft. This increases Fujian's operational power manifold over a carrier with STOBAR system such as India's Vikrant.

EMALS is the real game-changer for Fujian which puts it in a class above Vikrant and makes it comparable with American carriers. Some might call it China's answer to the US naval interventions in the Indo-Pacific. However, Fujian also gives China the capacity to assert itself in Indian Ocean.

But in reality, Fujian may not be able to operate the new technology as efficiently as its promise is, at least for a long initial period.

Doubts over Fujian's new tech

Experts have raised doubts over China's claim of using EMALS technology on Fujian. The Indian naval experts are surprised and want to know how Fujian will operate EMALS on steam power when the technologically far superior and nuclear-powered USS Gerald Ford has been struggling with the same system for several years, a recent HT report has revealed. The US Department of Defence reports indicate that EMALS suffers frequent breakdowns and is less reliable.

Why India did not use EMALS on Vikrant

General Atomics, the American company that has developed EMALS, was cleared by the Donald Trump administration to supply the new technology to India for use on Vikrant. But Indian Navy did not choose to use EMALS due to its high cost and, more importantly, its lack of reliability. Not only has EMALS reported breakdowns, it has been tested only on a nuclear-powered carrier, USS Gerald Ford. Its suitability for smaller, conventionally powered carriers has not been proved yet. That's where Fujian's challenge lies. And that's what can erode its clear edge over Vikrant.

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