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China’s 3rd aircraft carrier launch imminent, photos show

The Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aircraft carrier CV-16, Liaoning, sailing in Hong Kong waters. (Baycrest/WikiCommons)
June 15, 2022

The drydock currently holding China’s third aircraft carrier has been fully flooded, bringing the warship one step closer to its debut launch, new photos revealed this week.

Satellite images by Planet Labs capturing the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai and shared by The Drive show the Chinese Type 003 aircraft carrier is now surrounded by water on all sides. By flooding the drydock, the Chinese shipyard can now float the aircraft carrier out.

Photos previously shared online showed the shipyard had partially flooded the drydock, bringing water almost to the stern of the aircraft carrier. The shipyard also recently moved another smaller ship out of the way.

These recent developments have raised speculation about when the Chinese aircraft carrier will finally launch. Some observers had previously speculated the Type 003 would launch on April 23 to coincide with the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Anticipation for that April launch date fell off as an outbreak of COVID-19 hit Shanghai.

Last month, when China’s Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) ordered the berths at the No. 3 and No. 4 docks at the Jiangnan Shipyard on Shanghai’s Changxing Island to be cleared for an upcoming operation, some observers began to speculate the aircraft carrier’s launch would coincide with China’s Dragon Boat Festival.

On Tuesday, after observers spotted the continued flooding at the drydock, Singapore-based maritime security specialist Collin Koh speculated the aircraft carrier may launch to coincide with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s 69th birthday on Wednesday, June 15. Koh tweeted, “On Xi Jinping’s birthday? Very appropriate gift.”

Another Twitter user, who shared a closer image of the dry dock, speculated the ship could launch on Friday. “And while the tense is raising on when – eventually on Friday as it seems – the Type 003 carrier is being launched … here [sic] another new image. Looks like some sort of small red flags all along on top of these shelters covering the catapults.”

Construction on China’s third aircraft carrier began in the mid-2010s, though the exact start date is unknown.

The Type 003 is the second fully-domestically-produced carrier after the Type 002 carrier. China’s first aircraft carrier, the Type 001 Liaoning began construction in the Soviet Union and was purchased and finished by China after the Soviet Union’s dissolution. The Type 002 carrier Shandong is a modified version of the Soviet Kuznetsov design of the Liaoning.

The Type 003 aircraft carrier will be the first Chinese aircraft carrier to feature a catapult launch system instead of the ski ramp-takeoff system of the first two Chinese carriers. The catapult launch method allows carrier-borne aircraft to launch with larger payloads of fuel and weapons, allowing them extended strike range.

Even after the Type 003 launches, it will still need to undergo sea trials that could take years to complete. The Shandong launched in April 2017, completed its sea trials in April 2018 and was commissioned in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in December 2019.