China’s new high-tech aircraft carrier Type 003 is almost ready to launch, satellite image analysis shows – Community News
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China’s new high-tech aircraft carrier Type 003 is almost ready to launch, satellite image analysis shows

Images from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) show the carrier — known only as the Type 003 — on the brink of completion on Oct. 23 at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai.

Installation of key external and internal components, including power plants and the aircraft launch system, appears to have been completed or is on the cusp of completion, CSIS said. Only a few additional items — such as radar and weapon systems — have yet to be installed before the ship can slip into the Yangtze River, the analyst added.

“Based on available information and observed progress in Jiangnan, the authors estimate that the Type 003 will be launched in about three to six months,” CSIS said in a commentary published Nov. 9.

Once completed, the ship will be China’s third aircraft carrier and the second to be produced domestically.

But unlike its sister ships, the Liaoning and the Shandong, experts said the Type 003 will feature more advanced aircraft launch technology, along the lines of the catapult system used by US aircraft carriers.

The new launchers will allow China to launch a wider variety of 003 aircraft faster and with more ammunition.

Matthew Funiole, senior fellow with the CSIS’s China Project, said the Type 003 would be “the Chinese military’s first foray into a modern aircraft carrier.”

“This is a pretty important step forward,” he said. “They are really committed to building a carrier program and they continue to push the boundaries of what they can do.”

arms race

China now has the largest naval power in the world and aircraft carriers are the core ships of every major power’s fleet.
A Chinese naval formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning (C), during military exercises in the South China Sea in January 2017.

The huge ships are essentially a mobile airbase, allowing for rapid and long-term deployment of aircraft and weapons in a combat theater.

But their value isn’t just in terms of combat capability, Funiole said. They also have great value in terms of diplomatic prestige and ‘power projection’.

“China wants to have a world-class navy. It wants to show the world that it has a world-class navy, (and) try to convince nations in the region or around the world that it is on par with the United States.” States,” he said. And the symbol of US naval power internationally is its fleet of aircraft carriers, Funiole added.

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was an unfinished Soviet-era ship that Beijing bought from Ukraine in 1998, modernized and finally commissioned in 2012.
The Chinese military used the technological knowledge it gained from that ship to build its first domestically built carrier, the Shandong, which came into service in December 2019.

But while China’s two original aircraft carriers increased their naval power, their capacity has lagged far behind the US, which has a total of 11 of the ships in service.

In addition, both the Liaoning and Shandong were based on outdated Soviet technology. Those two airlines used the ski jump launch system, where planes would simply take off from a small slope, while US airlines use a more sophisticated catapult system to launch their plane.

Aircraft launched with catapults can take to the air faster and with greater amounts of fuel and ammunition, giving them an advantage over planes launched with ski jumps, which rely on their own power for takeoff.

The Type 003 appears to have the same catapult technology as the US, Funiole said, and may have even advanced in the use of electromagnetic launchers — skipping the steam-based launch systems still used on all but the latest US ships.

The new launch system will allow China to deploy a new mix of aircraft at sea, including early warning and control aircraft, tankers and aircraft that cause electronic jamming. A US Congressional Research report in October said the Type 003 was expected to have a displacement of about 100,000 tons, comparable to a US aircraft carrier of the same class.

Despite the advanced launch system, Funiole said there are still signs that the Chinese airline is lagging behind its US counterparts, which have more catapults, a larger airway and more elevators to allow for faster aircraft deployment.

All US aircraft carriers are also nuclear powered, while the Type 003 is believed to operate on conventional steam propulsion, which Funiole says would limit its range. “(Although) this may be less of a factor for China at the moment as many of its interests are in the nearby seas,” he said.

The Type 003 appears to have catapult technology to launch aircraft, according to analysts.

US naval advantage

According to analysts, there is one key factor that will enable the US fleet to remain superior to China’s for the foreseeable future: practice.

The US has operated aircraft carriers in both combat and peacetime since before World War II, and has a wealth of experience manning the ships and integrating them with the rest of their navies.

“We’ve been in carrier operations for generations and generations and we have a number of different operators and engineers and technicians who have worked on it who can pass that knowledge on to those who come after them,” Funiole said.

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By comparison, China has only been operating aircraft carriers since 2012, and that experience gap isn’t “something you can just jump ahead,” Funiole added.

Alessio Patalano, a professor of war and strategy at King’s College London, said modern aircraft carriers have “incredibly complex capabilities” and the technology development is far from being effective.

“This complexity is the result of both the difficulty of developing and harmonizing technologies to control air wings from a moving platform, and the challenge of building a ‘group’ of warships to support and protect it,” said he.

China also has little experience handling the right mix of support vessels in what the US Navy calls a carrier strike group. These include destroyers and frigates to provide defense against submarine and aerial attacks, as well as ships to operate and supply the combat craft that make up the attack group.

“Few countries have aircraft carriers, even fewer have aircraft carriers that can maintain a high operational rate, in all weather conditions, day and night,” Patalano said.

The future USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) will be on display for the first time under its own power in Newport News, Virginia, on April 8, 2017.

Get the latest technology

Once the Type 003 is launched, it will need to be tested and fully equipped before it is fit to be commissioned and officially entered service.

Initially, the United States Department of Defense had estimated that the Type 003 would be ready for active service in 2023, but it has now pushed that date to 2024.

The Shandong aircraft carrier also lasted two years from its launch in 2017 to its final entry into service in 2019. In addition, if the Type 003 aircraft carrier uses electromagnetic launch technology for its catapults, it could struggle to operate them.

Even the US struggled to use the same system on their newest airline, the USS Gerald R. Ford, leading to lengthy implementation delays.

Then there is the matter of the newest aircraft for the new airline.

“The challenge in assessing a carrier program is looking beyond the ship’s construction,” said Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.

A varying number of surface fighters from the People's Liberation Army are visible over time in the floodable basin of the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai.

The Chinese aircraft carrier J-31 prototype, a fifth-generation aircraft similar to the U.S. Navy’s F-35s, was recently unveiled, Schuster said. With development of the J-31 taking several more years to form a deployable air wing, Schuster estimates that it will be 2026 before the Type 003 will be fully operational.

Funiole said there is no sign of a fourth Chinese airline being built yet, although there have been rumors of one being developed or built. “I haven’t seen any visual evidence of it,” he said.

Overall, Funiole even said the Jiangnan shipyard was showing signs of reversing the rapid pace of military shipbuilding in recent years.

Satellite images appeared to show a renewed focus on orders from commercial ships — including cargo ships and oil tankers — rather than producing new ships for the People’s Liberation Navy.

But Funiole said instead of slowing down China’s navy development, perhaps the commercial building would help it.

“(This) tremendous pressure on commercial production is valuable,” he said. “That generates significant revenue, and some of that revenue probably helps drive that military modernization.”

Brad Lendon of CNN contributed to this story.

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