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China’s 3rd aircraft carrier expected to launch by February, satellite images show

China's new Type 001A aircraft carrier docked in August 2017. (GG001213/Wikimedia Commons)
November 10, 2021

Construction on China’s third aircraft carrier is steadily progressing at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai and according to a new analysis of satellite imagery released Tuesday, the carrier could be ready to launch by February

An analysis of the new satellite imagery by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) identified signs of progress on the ship’s construction that would indicate the ship would be ready to launch within three to six months.

“CSIS analysis shows that China’s Type 003 aircraft could launch in early 2022,” the think tank tweeted.

CSIS analysts Matthew Funaiole, Joseph Bermudez Jr. and Brian Hart noted that between September 18 and October 23, two large openings in the vessel’s deck were sealed shut. According to the CSIS analysts, the gaps in the deck would have allowed space for workers to place engines and powerplants in the hull of the ship and their closure is indicative that those components have already been installed within the ship.

The CSIS analysts noted other major components of the carrier are nearing completion, including the vessel’s aircraft catapult launch system.

China’s third aircraft carrier, designated Type 003, is to be China’s first aircraft carrier to incorporate a Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) system. CATOBAR systems allow aircraft carriers to launch larger aircraft and fixed-wing aircraft with heavier weapon payloads and more fuel. While most CATOBAR systems are steam-powered, China may have installed an electromagnetic launch system similar to the one employed on the U.S. Navy’s new Gerald R. Ford-class of carriers

The CSIS analysts noted that the last major step before the aircraft carrier can launch would be for construction workers to install the ship’s two starboard aircraft elevators, which will be used to move aircraft between the ship’s lower deck and its flight deck.

Radars may also be added on the ship’s island and weapon systems can be placed onto its sponsons in the coming weeks. Those systems could theoretically be added after the ship’s launch, but they would be easier to add while the ship is in its dry dock.

Before the ship can launch, the large hull blocks used to hold the ship in place will also have to be removed.

Based on the remaining steps to be completed, the CSIS analysts estimate a three to six-month timeline before the ship can launch. The analysts did say the construction timeline could still be extended by technical challenges with building modern aircraft carriers.

Even after the aircraft carrier launches, it could still be years before the aircraft carrier is commissioned by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and is fully operational.