China’s Newest Aircraft Carrier Is Nearing Launch. It Could Rival Those in the West
The unnamed ship is the third and most advanced yet.
BY KYLE MIZOKAMI
JUN 15, 2022
New satellite imagery shows that China’s new aircraft carrier is nearing launch and could leave drydock very soon. The unnamed ship, known as Type 003, will be Beijing’s most advanced and capable yet. The carrier will also embark a new generation of airplanes, from fighters to support aircraft, that will give it many of the same capabilities of Western aircraft carriers.
The image at the top of this story, taken by commercial satellite operator Planet Labs, shows the massive warship in drydock at Jiangnan Shipyard, near Shanghai. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) began construction of the new carrier in 2018. Type 003 will be the third to join the Chinese navy, following the flat-tops Shandong and Liaoning.
Recent estimates place the carrier’s launch sometime this month, even as early as today, but that does not mean the ship will be ready for active duty anytime soon; in naval parlance, launching doesn’t mean a warship is complete. They’re built in a drydock and then, once the hull and main structures are complete, the drydock is flooded with water and the ship is floated out to sit by a pier. June 14 satellite images from Planet Labs do appear to show Type 003 in a flooded drydock.
From there, a warship typically takes another year or two to complete, depending on its size, to “fit out,” as everything from radars and missiles to chairs are brought aboard. So yes, the ship will “launch” any day now, but it actually won’t be complete until at least 2023 or 2024.
Although the ship is incomplete, we can make out many of its features already in place. The ship has two aircraft elevators on the starboard side, fore and aft of the island superstructure. The island, home to aircraft and ship operations, is smaller and more compact than those on previous Chinese carriers.
The most important new feature on Type 003 is the use of catapults to launch aircraft. The new carrier has three catapults: two along the main flight deck, and a third on the angled flight deck running along the port side. The catapults are identifiable in the image at the top of the story as the three long channels running lengthwise along the flight deck.
The older carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, use a ski ramp to launch jet fighters into the air. Although effective, this limits the takeoff weight of fighters, reducing the amount of fuel and munitions each can carry. That in turn reduces their range and effectiveness in combat. Another disadvantage of ski ramps is that they are also incapable of launching propeller-driven aircraft, meaning China’s first two carriers are unable to embark crucial support aircraft.
The real question is what kind of catapult system Type 003 will have. The major navies of the world used steam-powered catapults for more than 80 years. Although effective, the complex routing of steam from the bowels of the ship up to the flight deck takes up a lot of internal volume. Steam catapults are also incapable of fine-tuning their power to allow smaller, lighter uncrewed aircraft to safely
USS Gerald R. Ford, the U.S. Navy’s latest supercarrier, utilizes the brand-new electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS). EMALS is powered by a series of strong magnetic fields, capable of rapidly accelerating an aircraft to takeoff speed. The new system makes for a smoother takeoff than the old steam system, and can launch both propeller-driven aircraft and smaller drones. Notably, France’s next aircraft carrier, PANG, will also use EMALS.
China has been working on an electromagnetic catapult system of its own. In 2017, reports surfaced that the People’s Liberation Army Navy had “achieved a breakthrough” in developing an EMALS-like system. Type 003 began construction in 2018, so it’s possible that the new ship will incorporate the new tech.
Regardless of launch system, Type 003’s use of catapults opens up new possibilities for China’s aircraft carriers. Today’s aircraft carriers still use propeller-driven aircraft for certain roles, especially those that prioritize range or loiter time over speed. The U.S. Navy, for its part, uses the prop-powered E-2D Advanced Hawkeye airborne early warning and control aircraft, which is based on the C-2 Greyhound transport. The E-2D is the eyes and ears of a carrier task force, capable of detecting threatening aircraft and missiles from hundreds of miles away—far beyond the range of ship-based radars. The E-2D can also direct large numbers of fighter jets in both offensive and defensive roles.
The use of a catapult on Type 003 will allow the PLAN to embark its own version of the Hawkeye. The aircraft, known as KJ-600, bears a strong resemblance to the E-2D and will give the new carrier the same capabilities. Type 003 will also likely carry China’s second-generation carrier-based fighter, the FC-31. The FC-31 “Gyrfalcon” is a twin-engine stealth fighter that likely has both air-to-air and air-to-ground roles. The FC-31 strongly resembles the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates Type 003 is approximately 1,043 feet long. That’s 50 feet shorter than American carriers, but 42 feet longer than Liaoning and Shandong. The new carrier can likely carry between 48 and 60 aircraft—a combination of FC-31s, KJ-600s, a carrier onboard delivery transport aircraft based on the KJ-600 airframe, and both utility and anti-submarine warfare helicopters. The carrier could carry between 36 and 48 FC-31s. A U.S. Navy Ford-class carrier, by comparison, carries about 74 aircraft, including 44 F/A-18E/F and F-35C strike fighters.
How many carriers will China ultimately have? China currently has three flat-tops, but the ships are of varying usefulness. The first, Liaoning, is a training carrier and would be marginally useful in wartime. The second, Shandong, was built for war, but has all of Liaoning’s limitations. Type 003 will be the first carrier with a combat capability approaching Western carriers.
There have been suggestions that China would eventually build six carriers, but the Chinese economy is slowing down just as the first truly useful carrier is preparing for launch. China may not reach its reported goal of a half-dozen flat-tops … or it may build more than that. Only time will tell.