China, which already has the world’s largest navy, could launch a new high-tech aircraft carrier that rivals US warships by early next year, according to an analysis of satellite imagery.
The Tuesday report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, DC-based think tank, said images taken Oct. 23 show the carrier, known as Type 003, is nearing completion at the Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai.
The vessel would be China’s third aircraft carrier.
Based on the images, CSIS estimated that “Type 003 will launch in roughly three to six months. The technical challenges of building a modern aircraft carrier could, however, extend this timeline.”
However, the report adds that even after it is launched, ”it will still be years before the Type 003 is commissioned into the PLAN [People’s Liberation Army Navy] and achieves initial operating capability.”
The analysis suggested that work to install engines and power plants in the ship’s hull has been completed, judging by the presence of two large openings on the carrier’s deck that have since been sealed shut.
The report also noted ongoing work to install and test three catapults that will assist aircraft taking off and landing on the carrier deck.
”The inclusion of catapults on the Type 003 is a major leap forward for the People’s Liberation Army Navy,” the analysis said.
China’s two other aircraft carriers do not have that catapult technology, using ski jump-style takeoff systems instead.
Type 003’s system will allow it to launch aircraft with heavier payloads and more fuel, the report said, adding that “China has developed an electromagnetic launch system similar to the one developed for the U.S. Navy’s new Gerald R. Ford class of carriers.”
The report added that while work on the carrier appears to be a priority, construction of other military vessels has seen a “significant slowdown” in recent months as the shipyard focuses on commercial orders.
”This blurring of commercial and military activity is a hallmark of many Chinese shipyards, and the construction history of the Type 003 is a prime example. The carrier currently shares a dry dock with the hull blocks of an unidentified container ship,” the CSIS report said.
The blending of commercial and military uses should raise “significant red flags,” the report said.
“The foreign capital flowing into Jiangnan and the dozens of other shipyards that dot China’s coast may both directly and indirectly help buoy the ongoing modernization of the PLAN,” it said. “Foreign companies would do well to consider whether their vessels should be built alongside Chinese warships – including the Type 003.”
A recent Pentagon report warned that China is rapidly expanding and modernizing its military with the goal to meet President Xi Jinping’s pledge to transform the People’s Liberation Army into a “world class” military by 2049.
“The PRC is increasingly clear in its ambitions and intentions. Beijing seeks to reshape the international order to better align with its authoritarian system and national interests, as a vital component of its strategy to achieve the ’great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,’” said the report, which referred to China by its formal name, the People’s Republic of China.
The Pentagon report estimated that China has about 355 front-line ships and submarines, approximately 60 more than the US.
The Chinese navy also has the capability to conduct long-range precision strikes against targets from its submarines and is bolstering its anti-submarine warfare potential to protect its aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines.
Adding to worries about Beijing’s expanding military prowess, recent satellite images show China has constructed fake US Navy warships for use in possible target practice exercises.
The images captured by Maxar Technologies show full-scale outlines of a carrier and two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers mounted on railway tracks at a target range in the Taklamakan Desert, according to an analysis by the US Naval Institute.