Construction of China’s third aircraft carrier is well under way, according to satellite images obtained and analysed by a U.S. think tank.
The images appear to show considerable recent activity during the last six months on a large vessel at the Jiangnan shipyard on the outskirts of Shanghai.
The Pentagon said last week that work on the vessel had begun, but no images have emerged until now.
One of the satellite images released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington shows what appears to be the construction of China’s third aircraft carrier, known as Type 002, at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai
‘While details regarding the Type 002 are limited, what is observable at Jiangnan is consistent with what is expected for the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s third aircraft carrier,’ said the ChinaPower analysis published by the U.S. think tank today
Chinese state-run media including Xinhua and Global Times reported last year that the country was building a third aircraft carrier known as Type 002 and that it could be launched in 2021.
The Chinese government has yet to formally confirm the reported construction.
Both Asian and Western militaries, and regional security analysts, are seeking information on the carrier, which is expected to be China’s first large, modern platform capable of leading a full range of strike group operations.
The effort to build a large, locally designed carrier is seen as a core part of China’s extensive military modernisation drive. The effort is challenging decades of U.S. strategic superiority in East Asia.
Analyst Matthew Funaiole said it was hard for the team to see evidence of the construction from pictures taken late last year, but now it was clear that work had begun. ‘From what we can see there has been a lot of activity in the last six months or so,’ he said. ‘It would appear that it is the third carrier, and if it is not, it’s hard to envisage what other large vessel it would be.’
Speculation of the construction of China’s third aircraft carrier emerged last year after the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation accidentally leaked a picture of a warship which had never been seen before in a social media post in June
The satellite pictures were released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, which has been studying activities in the Jiangnan shipyard for a period of time.
A report from the group last year revealed that the Jiangnan shipyard had expanded dramatically since 2011 after experts compared satellite images from 2011 and 2018.
China’s third aircraft carrier: What we know so far
- China’s third aircraft carrier will reportedly have a displacement of more than 80,000 tonnes
- The new warship is set to be equipped with a flat-top flight deck and an electromagnetic aircraft launch system
- Three catapults shown on board the carrier would mean high speed launch capabilities, high frequency take-offs and quick responses
- Construction has started last year in Shanghai and sea trials are expected to begin in three years, according to Chinese media
At least 18 warships were spotted in the shipyard last year.
Jiangnan shipyard is one of the most important naval shipbuilding plants in China and its name means ‘south of Yangtze River’. It’s located on Changxing Island in Shanghai at the mouth of the Yangtze River.
The latest satellite images, taken on April 17, show a bow section that appears to end with a flat 30-metre (98-foot) front and a separate hull section 41 metres (134.5 feet) wide, with gantry cranes looming overhead.
That suggests a vessel somewhat smaller than 100,000-tonne U.S. carriers but larger than France’s 42,500-tonne Charles de Gaulle, analysts say.
Fabrication halls the size of several football pitches have been built nearby, and work appears to be continuing on a floodable basin, possibly to float the finished hull into the nearby Yangtze River estuary.
‘While details regarding the Type 002 are limited, what is observable at Jiangnan is consistent with what is expected for the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s third aircraft carrier,’ said the CSIS’s ChinaPower analysis.
CSIS analyst Matthew Funaiole said it was hard for the team to see evidence of the construction of the warship from pictures taken late last year, but now it was clear that work had begun.
‘From what we can see there has been a lot of activity in the last six months or so,’ he said. ‘It would appear that it is the third carrier, and if it is not, it’s hard to envisage what other large vessel it would be.’
Speculation of the construction of China’s third aircraft carrier emerged after the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation accidentally leaked a picture of a warship which had never been seen before in a social media post last June.
In the picture released in June, the new aircraft carrier is seen flanked by Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, and Type 001A, the country’s first domestically developed carrier. Liaoning and Type 001A were revamped and built by Dalian Shipyard
China’s first carrier, the Liaoning (pictured), was a Soviet-era Ukrainian ship bought secondhand in 1998 and re-fitted in China
In November, Xinhua News Agency said in a report that ‘a new generation aircraft carrier is being built on the slipway,’ marking the first official Chinese media confirmation of the warship’s construction.
Military experts told the Global Times that the new aircraft carrier might need about two and a half years to be built because of its bigger size, meaning it could be launched in 2021.
The Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military modernisation, issued last Friday, noted that the third carrier would probably be larger than the first two and fitted with a catapult launch system to accelerate aircraft during takeoff.
‘This design will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations,’ the report said.
Funaiole and other analysts said it was unclear what kind of catapult – traditional steam-powered or a more cutting-edge electromagnetic system – would be used.
It also remains unclear whether Type 002 would be nuclear-powered. China has 10 nuclear-powered submarines, but so far no surface ships with nuclear propulsion; some analysts think China is not ready to make that step.
Singapore-based regional security analyst Ian Storey said a full-sized carrier would make some of China’s neighbours nervous and highlight the importance of their strategic relationship with the United States.
‘Once completed, it will outclass any warship from any Asian country, including India and Japan,’ said Storey, of the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute. ‘It is yet another indication that China has emerged as Asia’s paramount naval power.’
China’s second aircraft carrier (pictured), which is temporarily named Type 001A, has been undergoing sea trials from its base in northern Dalian and is not expected to enter service until 2020. The warship is China’s first domestically built carrier
China’s first two carriers are relatively small, with only up to 25 aircraft, less than half the number aboard U.S. carriers, and have jump ramps built into their bows. That configuration limits not just the types of aircraft that can fly off them, but how much weaponry and fuel they can carry.
Its first carrier, the Liaoning, was a Soviet-era Ukrainian ship bought secondhand in 1998 and re-fitted in China. A second carrier based on that design was built by Chinese engineers and launched in 2017. It is coded Type 001A and yet to be named.
The Liaoning had been seen as more of a training platform for teaching personnel the tricky art of carrier operations. But last month, Chinese state media said the ship ‘is starting to play a combat role following recent modifications and intensive training exercises’.
Type 001A has been undergoing sea trials from its base in northern Dalian and is not expected to enter service until 2020.
Dalian Shipyard in north-east China was responsible for the retrofit of the Liaoning and the construction of Type 001A.
China’s state media have quoted experts as saying China needs at least six carriers. The United States operates 11 carriers.