Satellite photographs analyzed by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) appear to show construction underway at the Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai on China’s third and largest aircraft carrier.
If the new ship lives up to the estimates of military analysts, it will be the first Chinese carrier comparable to an American ship in performance, although it will be slightly smaller.
According to CSIS, “significant activity” has taken place at the shipyard over the past few months, and the “bow and main hull section of a large vessel” are now visible. The size of the ship under construction tracks with expectations for China’s Type 002 aircraft carrier.
The images show the shipyard itself visibly upgraded to handle construction of the massive ship, including the erection of a new crane and the first stages of construction on a floodable basin that the Chinese could use to launch a very large ship. Improvements to the road network around the shipyard will probably be necessary to handle some of the components that must be trucked in for the project.
CSIS analysts did not venture an opinion on whether the Type 002 carrier, if that is indeed the ship under construction at Jiangnan, is on schedule for its projected launch in 2022.
The Pentagon recently stated that China has commenced construction on a carrier that would “probably be larger than the first two and fitted with a catapult launch system to accelerate aircraft during takeoff.”
China’s currently operational carrier, the retrofitted Russian ship now known as the Liaoning, uses a “ski slope” ramp at the bow to launch its aircraft. U.S. carriers use a catapult launching system that allows them to more rapidly launch larger, heavier planes.
Experts generally see the Liaoning as a training vessel and test bed, although they consider it combat-ready and China has dispatched it on a few intimidating cruises around Taiwan.
China’s second aircraft carrier, the first one designed and constructed by the Chinese themselves, shoved off from the Dalian shipyard in August 2018.
The Type 001A carrier is similar to the Liaoning in most respects, although it is larger and can carry more planes. It commenced its fifth sea trial in February, possibly to test the launch and recovery of aircraft. Outside observers believe Beijing wants to declare the Type 001A fully operational in time for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in October 2019.
China’s stated goal is to have six aircraft battle groups operational by 2035, four of them based around nuclear-powered ships. This objective probably does not count the Liaoning or the Type 001A carrier, because the plan calls for all six carriers to have the vastly superior catapult launching system. The ship potentially under construction at Jiangnan will probably have catapult launchers, but it is not clear whether it will be nuclear-powered.