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China is rapidly building a 3rd aircraft carrier and could finish this year, new satellite images show

China's new Type 001A aircraft carrier docked in August 2017. (GG001213/Wikimedia Commons)
July 22, 2021

Construction on China’s third aircraft carrier has gone forward faster than expected and may be ready to launch sometime later this year, analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said last week based on analysis of new satellite images.

On July 14, CSIS tweeted, “Recent satellite imagery suggests that China’s Type 003 aircraft carrier may be ready to launch later this year. Don’t miss CSIS’ latest High Resolution Spotlight.”

CSIS reported that imagery from China’s Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, captured by Maxar Technologies on July 12, shows that construction of the carrier’s flight deck, basic superstructure, and its sponsons are nearly complete.

“We didn’t expect it to be moving quite so quick,” Matthew Funaiole, a senior fellow with the China Power Project at CSIS, told Insider. “It looks like they have moved a little faster than we expected. They are moving at quite the clip. At this point, I would not be surprised if it ends up being put into the water sometime later this year.”

Analysts at CSIS had predicted in June that the Chinese aircraft carrier would not be ready to launch until some time in 2022.

The unnamed third Chinese aircraft carrier, known as the Type 003, now measures approximately 318 meters in length, CSIS reported.

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Type 001 Liaoning, is based on a partially constructed Soviet-era Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier. The carrier was a ski-jump-style takeoff ramp for its aircraft. China’s second aircraft carrier, the Type 002 Shandong, was China’s first fully domestically-built aircraft carrier and, like the Liaoning, has a ski-jump-style takeoff ramp for its aircraft.

China’s third aircraft carrier will have a flat-top flight deck with a catapult-assisted launch system. CSIS noted what appear to be three catapult launch channels, each measuring approximately 105 meters. CSIS also noted the Type 003 carrier’s aircraft elevators appear to be several meters wider than those of its predecessor, the Type 002 Shandong.

A catapult system has advantages over the ramp systems most countries use for their carriers. An aircraft launched by a catapult is able to carry more fuel and weapons than it would if launched by a ramp. Those advantages would allow carrier-launched aircraft greater ranger and more armaments for use in a combat setting.

Funaiole told Insider China’s Type 003 is expected to “be a formidable addition to China’s navy and allow it to more effectively project power.”

Insider reported the new Type 003 carrier is expected to be comparable to the Kitty Hawk-class aircraft carriers the U.S. Navy operated from 1961 to 2009, though it will likely have more advanced onboard systems.

The rapid construction of China’s third aircraft carrier comes as China has quickly grown the size of its naval forces in recent years. In 2019, China overtook the U.S. as the country with the largest Navy. China continued to expand its lead in 2020. In April, China commissioned three new vessels, including a nuclear submarine, a helicopter carrier and a guided-missile destroyer in the same day.