China’s New High-Tech Type 003 Aircraft Carrier Almost Ready for Launch, Satellite Image Analysis Says

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In images provided by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the aircraft carrier – known only as Type 003 – can be seen about to be completed on October 23, in the shipyard of Jiangnan in Shanghai.

Installation of major external and internal components, including power plants and the aircraft launching system, appear to be completed or about to be completed, CSIS said. Only a few additional items – such as radars and weapon systems – remain to be installed before the ship can slide into the Yangtze River, analysts added.

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

When ready, the ship will be the third Chinese aircraft carrier and the second to be produced in the country.

But unlike its sister ships Liaoning and Shandong, experts said the Type 003 would have more advanced aircraft launch technology, similar to the catapult system used by US aircraft carriers. .

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

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

“It’s a pretty big step forward,” he said. “They are really committed to having a carrier program in place, and they continue to push the boundaries of what they can do.”

Arms race

China now has the largest naval force in the world, and aircraft carriers are the main ships of the all-powerful fleet.

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

But their value isn’t just in terms of combat ability, Funaiole said. They are also of great value in terms of diplomatic prestige and “projection of power”.

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

The first Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was a unfinished soviet era ship which Beijing bought from Ukraine in 1998, updated and finally put into service in 2012.
The Chinese military used the technological knowledge gained from this ship to build its first domestically-built aircraft carrier, Shandong, which entered service in December 2019.

But although the first two Chinese aircraft carriers increased their naval power, their capacity was still far behind the United States, which has a total of 11 of the ships in service.

Moreover, Liaoning and Shandong were both based on outdated Soviet technology. Both of these aircraft carriers used the ski jump launch system, where planes simply took off from a slight ramp, while US aircraft carriers used a more advanced catapult system to launch their planes.

Planes launched by catapults can take off faster and with greater amounts of fuel and ammunition, giving them an advantage over planes launched by ski jump, which depend on their own power during takeoff.

The Type 003 appears to have the same catapult technology as the United States, Funaiole said, and may even have advanced in the use of electromagnetic launchers – skipping the steam launch systems still used on all American ships except the more recent.

With the new launch system, China can deploy a new mix of aircraft at sea, including airborne early warning and control devices, tankers and electronic jamming aircraft. A US Congressional research report in October said the Type 003 is expected to have a displacement of around 100,000 tonnes, comparable to a US carrier of the same class.

However, despite the advanced launch system, Funaiole said there are still signs the Chinese carrier is lagging behind its U.S. counterparts, which have more catapults, a wider airway and more elevators to allow faster deployment of aircraft.

All US aircraft carriers are also nuclear powered, while the Type 003 is said to operate with conventional steam propulsion, which Funaiole says would limit its range. “(Although) it may be less of a factor for China right now, as many of its interests lie in the nearby seas,” he said.

The Type 003 appears to have catapult technology to launch planes, analysts say.

American Naval Advantage

According to analysts, there is a major factor that will allow the US fleet to remain superior to that of China for the foreseeable future: practice.

The United States has operated aircraft carriers in both combat and peacetime since pre-WWII, and has extensive experience in crewing ships and integrating them with the rest of its navy.

“We have been in carrier operations for generations and generations and we have a number of different operators, engineers and technicians who have worked there who can pass this knowledge on to those who will follow them,” said Funaiole.

China has built the world's largest navy.  Now, what is Beijing going to do with it?

By comparison, China has only been operating aircraft carriers since 2012 and this experience gap is not “something you can just jump forward,” Funaiole added.

Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy at King’s College London, said modern aircraft carriers have “incredibly complex capabilities” and the development of technology falls far short of using it effectively.

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

China also has little experience putting together the right mix of support ships in what the US Navy calls a carrier strike group. These include destroyers and frigates to provide defense against attacks from submarines and airs, as well as ships to maintain and supply the combat ships that make up the attack group.

“Very few countries have aircraft carriers, and even fewer have aircraft carriers capable of maintaining a high operational tempo, whatever the weather conditions, night or day,” Patalano said.

The future USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) is seen underway under its own power for the first time April 8, 2017 in Newport News, Virginia.

Get the latest technology

Once Type 003 is launched, it will need to be tested and fully equipped before it is ready for service and officially entering service.

Initially, the US Department of Defense estimated that the Type 003 would be ready for active service by 2023, but has now pushed that date back to 2024.

The aircraft carrier Shandong also took two years between its launch in 2017 and its entry into service in 2019. Additionally, if the Type 003 aircraft carrier uses electromagnetic launch technology for its catapults, it could have a hard time keeping them. make it work.

Even the United States had difficulty using the same system on their last carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, resulting in long deployment times.

Then there is the issue of the last plane for the new carrier.

“The challenge of judging an aircraft carrier program goes beyond the construction of the ship,” said Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the Joint Intelligence Center at US Pacific Command.

A varying number of People's Liberation Army Navy surface fighters can be seen over time in the flood basin at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai.

The Chinese J-31 aircraft carrier fighter prototype, 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 the formation of a deployable air wing afterwards, Schuster estimates that it will take 2026 before the Type 003 is fully operational.

Funaiole said there were no signs of building a fourth Chinese carrier yet, although there were rumors that one was under development or construction. “I didn’t see any visual evidence of it,” he said.

In fact, overall, Funaiole said the Jiangnan Shipyard was showing evidence of abandoning the rapid pace of military shipbuilding seen in recent years.

Satellite images appeared to show a renewed interest in orders for commercial vessels – including freighters and tankers – rather than produce new ships for the People’s Liberation Navy.

But Funaiole said that rather than slowing down China’s naval development, the commercial building could help it.

“(This) massive push for commercial production is valuable,” he said. “It generates key revenue and some of that revenue is probably helping to spur this military modernization.”

CNN’s Brad Lendon contributed to this story.


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