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Photos: China’s third aircraft carrier preparing to launch

China's Liaoning CV-16 in Hong Kong Waters. (Baycrest/Wikipedia)
June 08, 2022

Construction on China’s third aircraft carrier, the Type 003 design, is nearly complete and the ship could launch in a matter of days, satellite photos revealed last week.

The commercial satellite imaging firm Maxar captured photos of the Chinese aircraft carrier at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, China on May 31. The image, shared by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), shows water has partially filled the dry dock where the aircraft carrier is located, suggesting the ship could soon be slid into the water.

In a June 2 article, CSIS noted images taken on May 21 showed a smaller under-construction vessel had blocked the dry dock where the Type 003 aircraft carrier was being built. Last week, 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. The May 31 image showed that the smaller vessel which had been situated behind the Type 003 had been moved and the drydock was filled with water nearly to the stern of the new aircraft carrier.

CSIS analyst Brian Hart shared the May 21 and May 31 photos side-by-side and noted the Type 003 carrier now has an opening to enter the waters of the Yangtze River.

It’s still unclear when China’s newest aircraft carrier would launch. Last week, multiple analysts noted the MSA’s orders to move the smaller vessel and speculated the Type 003 would be able to launch by June 3, to coincide with China’s Dragon Boat Festival. 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.

Photos taken of Type 003 this week showed it is still positioned in its dry dock at the Jiangnan Shipyard.

The Type 003 aircraft carrier will be China’s 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 also 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 of 2017, completed its sea trials in April 2018 and was commissioned in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in December of 2019.