Analysis of satellite images shows that China’s new high-tech Type 003 aircraft carrier is almost ready to launch
In images provided by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the aircraft carrier – known only as Type 003 – can be seen nearing completion on October 23, at the shipyard. Jiangnan in Shanghai.
CSIS said the installation of key exterior and interior components, including the power plant and launch system, appeared to be completed or nearing completion. Only a few additional items – such as radar systems and weapons – will still be installed before the ship can slide into the Yangtze River, the analysts added.
“Based on available information and observed progress in Jiangnan, the authors estimate that Type 003 will launch in between three and six months,” CSIS said in a commentary published today. November.
Once ready, the ship will be China’s third aircraft carrier and second domestically produced.
But unlike its sister ships, the Liaoning and Shandong, experts say the Type 003 will feature more advanced aircraft-launching technology, along the line of catapult systems that the US aircraft carrier. use.
The new launchers will allow China to launch a variety of aircraft from the Type 003 faster and with more ammunition.
Matthew Funaiole, senior member of CSIS’s China Project, said the Type 003 would be “the Chinese military’s first foray into a modern aircraft carrier.”
“This is quite an important step forward,” he said. “They’ve been really committed to building a carrier program and continuing to push the boundaries of what they can do.”
The massive ships are essentially a mobile airbase, allowing for quick, long-term deployment of aircraft and weapons to a battle stage.
But their value is not only in combat ability, Funaiole said. They also hold great value in terms of diplomatic prestige and “projection of power.”
“China wants to have a world-class navy. They want to signal to the world that they have a world-class navy, (and) try to convince countries in the region or the world over,” he said. around the world that they are on par with the United States,” he said. And the symbol of US naval power on the international stage is its aircraft carrier fleet, Funaiole added.
But although China’s two original aircraft carriers have increased their naval power, their capabilities are still far behind the United States, which has a total of 11 ships in service.
In addition, both Liaoning and Shandong are based on outdated Soviet technology. Those two carriers used a ski-jump launch system, where the aircraft only needed to take off from a slight slope, while the American carriers used a more advanced catapult system to launch their planes. surname.
Catapult-launched planes can get into the air faster with larger amounts of fuel and ammunition, giving them an advantage over ski-jumping planes, which rely on their own power for take-off .
Funaiole said the Type 003 appears to have the same catapult technology as the US and may even have advanced to use an electromagnetic launcher – bypassing the steam-based launch system still used on all aircraft. America’s newest warship.
With the new launch system, China can operate a new complex of aircraft at sea, including airborne early warning and control ships, tankers and electronic jammers. A research report by the US Congress in October said the Type 003 is expected to displace about 100,000 tons, equivalent to the US aircraft carrier of its class.
However, despite the advanced launch system, Funaiole said there are signs that the Chinese aircraft carrier lags behind US carriers, which have more catapults, larger airways and more elevators. allowing for faster aircraft deployment.
All US aircraft carriers are also nuclear-powered, while the Type 003 is said to be powered by conventional steam propulsion, which Funaiole says will limit its range. This may not be a factor for China right now because of its many interests in the near seas, he said.
America’s naval advantage
According to analysts, there is one key factor that will help the US fleet to outperform China in the near future: practicality.
The United States has operated aircraft carriers both in combat and in peacetime since before World War II, and has extensive experience in building ships and combining them with the rest of the navy.
“We have been operating on carriers for generations, and we have a number of different operators and engineers and technicians who have worked with them, able to pass that knowledge on,” Funaiole said. for those who come after them,” said Funaiole.
Meanwhile, China has only operated an aircraft carrier since 2012, and that experience gap is not “something you can move forward,” Funaiole added.
Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy at King’s College London, said modern aircraft carriers have “incredibly complex capabilities” and that developing the technology is far from using it alone. effectively.
This complexity is the result of both the difficulty of developing and harmonizing the technologies to operate the wings from a moving platform and from the challenge of building a ‘group’ of warships to support and protect it.
China also has little experience in placing suitable support ships in what the US Navy calls a carrier strike group. These include destroyers and frigates to defend against submarine and air attack as well as have ships serving and supplying the combat ships that form the strike group.
“Few countries have aircraft carriers, and even fewer carriers that can maintain high operating speeds, in any weather, night or day,” Patalano said.
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Once the Type 003 aircraft carrier is launched, it will need to be fully tested and equipped before it is officially put into service.
The Shandong aircraft carrier also takes two years from its launch in 2017 until it officially goes into operation in 2019. Moreover, if the Type 003 aircraft carrier uses electromagnetic discharge technology for catapults their own, it may have difficulty operating them.
Then there’s the question of the newest aircraft for the new carrier.
“The challenge in evaluating an aircraft carrier program is to look beyond the ship’s construction,” said Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.
The prototype of China’s J-31 aircraft carrier fighter jet, a fifth-generation aircraft similar to the US Navy’s F-35s, has just been revealed, Schuster said. With several years of J-31 development remaining and then forming a deployable air wing, Schuster estimates it will be operational by 2026 before the Type 003 becomes fully operational.
Funaiole said there is still no sign of a fourth Chinese aircraft carrier being built, although there are rumors that one is under development or under construction. “I haven’t seen any visual evidence of it,” he said.
In fact, on the whole, Funaiole says the Jiangnan shipyard is showing evidence of a transition away from the rapid pace of military shipbuilding in recent years.
But Funaiole said instead of slowing China’s naval development, commercial buildings could support it.
“(This) big boost to commercial production is valuable,” he said. “That generates major revenue, and some of that revenue could help accelerate military modernization.”
CNN’s Brad Lendon contributed to this story.