Close-up photo shows China’s new aircraft carrier quickly taking shape

Work is well advanced on the next aircraft carrier which is expected to join the expanding Chinese navy. A leaked photo now brings us our closest view to date of the ship, which is expected to provide the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, with a significant leap in capabilities, including catapults for launching. aircraft, a major advantage over the two previous ones in the service, smaller aircraft carriers with their “springboard” take-off ramps.

The unnamed new transporter, currently known as Type 003, has been under construction at the Jiangnan Shipyard outside of Shanghai since at least late 2018. Earlier this week, it emerged that a user of Tik- Tok had managed to take a very close-up photo of the ship, taken from the dry dock where it is being built, and upload it to this social networking service. The image was deleted shortly after, but not before it was saved and shared elsewhere online.


A satellite view of the Type 003 aircraft carrier under construction, dated February 18, 2021.

While inconclusive, the image appears to negate recent speculation that the carrier features a third aircraft lift on the port side toward the stern, to complement the two starboard elevators. Elevators are needed to move planes between the hangar and flight decks; the more elevators available, the greater the capacity to move planes. In comparison, the US Navy Nimitz the classroom design has four elevators. At the same time, more elevators can actually complicate the use of space in the cockpit and the US Navy has decided to have three aircraft elevators on the last one. Ford carrier class, with the size and position of these elevators intended to improve operations. The two previous PLAN carriers each have two elevators on the starboard side.

To date, most of the new carrier’s imagery has been limited to satellite and other aerial imagery of varying quality. The three enormous modules that make up most of the Type 003 were in dry dock in July of last year, with most of the keel and lower parts of the hull joining them in September.

Using these earlier images, some observers have extrapolated that the warship will probably have a displacement greater than the figure of 80,000 to 85,000 tonnes initially planned. This would bring it closer to the US Navy supercarriers, which have a displacement of about 100,000 tons.

Additionally, the Type 003 design should be equipped with an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), rather than relying on the “ski hill” ramps used on the two active PLAN carriers, the Liaoning (Type 001) and Shandong (Type 002). The use of EMALS could potentially increase the output generation rate on the new carrier, although it apparently does not feature additional aircraft elevators.

The introduction of an EMALS is a significant technological challenge, which has encountered its fair share of problems in the United States, but if perfected, it will allow the PLAN to operate larger and heavier carrier aircraft, such as as fixed-wing airborne early warning (AEW) platforms. , and to launch and recover existing multi-role J-15 aircraft carrier fighters at heavier weights, with a significant increase in the number of sorties the carrier can generate. EMALS would also allow the carrier to launch lighter drones, a prospect we’ve looked at in detail in the past.

Even if the Chinese EMALS fails, or if the equipment is not ready in time for the Type 003, the alternative conventional steam catapults which have also been tested would also present a great advance over “ski jumping”. Unlike the US Navy supercarriers, the Type 003 is expected to use conventional propulsion rather than nuclear.

Overall, the Type 003 represents an optimized original aircraft carrier design that will incorporate lessons learned during initial operations with the Liaoning and Shandong. The first of them is the old one Kuznetsov class transporter Varyag, which was transferred to China from Ukraine, entered service in 2012 and declared initial operational capability in 2018. The second, Shandong, although built in China, follows design principles very similar to the Liaoning and entered service at the end of 2019. At least once, the first two carriers have participated in joint operations.


The launch of the Shandong, in April 2017. It is the first aircraft carrier built in China.

What is clear, above all, is the speed with which Beijing is developing its aircraft carrier capabilities. Progress on the construction of the Type 003 has been impressive, despite the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some reports predict Type 003 could be launched Next year, which would more or less correspond to an unranked February 2020 report of the Office of Naval Intelligence anticipating that this aircraft carrier could enter service in 2024.

If the Type 002 project was less ambitious, it should still be noted that only about five years elapsed between the laying of the keel of the future Shandong and the commissioning of this vessel. Just as important as the speed at which this was achieved is the experience that will have been gained by the Chinese shipbuilding industries that are currently working on the Type 003 and will surely build more aircraft carriers in the future.

Unconfirmed reports last year suggest that work on PLAN’s next transporter – the Type 004 – was due to start soon, possibly at the Dalian Shipyard in Liaoning. There are persistent rumors that this ship will be both larger than its predecessors and be nuclear powered, but other evaluations suggest that it will use the Type 003 design. Ultimately, however, it seems likely that nuclear power will be the objective of the PLAN.

Western reports have frequently speculated that the PLAN could eventually constitute a force of six aircraft carriers. On the other hand, other observers claim that Beijing is planning “10 or more carriers” in the long term, which would clearly be a much longer-term ambition.

While the carriers themselves appear to be moving forward at an impressive rate, the developments within the thriving aviation branch of the carriers of the PLAN are somewhat less clear.

Production of the original J-15 carrier fighter, suitable for operations without a catapult from the decks of the Liaoning and Shandong has so far produced at least 36 production aircraft, said Chinese military aviation expert Andreas Rupprecht The war zone. Since the serial number assignment is somewhat confusing, the actual total may be higher, but Rupprecht expects production to eventually produce up to 60-70 J-15s to serve air wings. of the first two carriers.


A PLAN J-15 multirole fighter recovers on its aircraft carrier.

A version capable of catapulting the Chinese Naval Flanker, sometimes described as the J-15T, has also been tested from land bases and there are also reports of a so-called J-15B version equipped with radar, a advanced avionics and weapons. . It would make sense, of course, for all of these features to come together in a production version of the Flanker capable of catapulting to operate from Type 003, as well as Type 004 and potential future carriers. Rupprecht considers it likely that the J-15Ts – two of which have been identified to date – are primarily intended to serve as demonstrators for the future catapult compatible J-15B.


Seen in the background, this J-15T reveals the bar on the nose gear added for the launch of the catapult.

The ultimate fate of the J-15 may also depend on progress made with a widely distributed carrier version of the FC-31 stealth fighter, possibly referred to as J-35, although this is unconfirmed. Given that the basic design of the J-15 dates back to the Cold War era, the Soviet-designed Su-33, and has been the subject of criticism on several occasions, it seems likely that China is already working on a more capable successor, although, despite many rumors, there is so far no solid evidence of a naval FC-31.

The introduction of catapults on the Type 003 also opens the door to boarding an AEW fixed-wing aircraft, a prototype of which is already in test, a fact initially confirmed by photos published last summer. The KJ-600 twin-turboprop is analogous to the US Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye and looks superficially similar. When deployed aboard the Type 003, the KJ-600 promises to revolutionize the way the aircraft carrier PLAN’s air squadron operates, providing long-range surveillance against air, sea and land targets as well as combat management and networking. PLAN already has some experience with carrier-based AEW assets, in the form of the Z-18J, a derivative of the Z-18 heavy lift helicopter with a retractable radar antenna attached to the rear ramp.

Overall, PLAN’s burgeoning transport capability bolsters Beijing’s efforts to compete with the U.S. military in the region and develop its throwing power and true blue water capabilities. Inevitably, this goes against the lingering tensions between China and the United States, especially in the hot spots of the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

In his 2020 report to Congress On the Chinese military, the US Department of Defense highlighted the Type 003 in particular as a major development within its planned multi-carrier force:

“The next generation of Chinese aircraft carriers will have greater endurance and a catapult system,” the report said. “In particular, Chinese aircraft carriers and planned follow-up aircraft carriers, once operational, will extend air defense coverage beyond the reach of coastal and airborne missile systems and allow task group operations to increasingly long spans. “


the Liaoning flanked by a Type 052C destroyer and a Type 054A frigate.

The PLAN also clearly has more distant ambitions, as evidenced by its decision to create a new naval base in Djibouti, in a strategic position near the entrance to the Red Sea, which US officials consider appropriate to support aircraft carriers. There are also two new Fuyu Fast class combat support ships that have been specially designed to support aircraft carrier operations.

On the other hand, we must not forget that China is still very new to the aircraft carrier game. Few other countries have operational carriers regularly carrying fixed-wing aircraft and although PLAN is the last to join this elite club, it will still take many years of experience before its carrier branch reaches its full potential.

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