China is three to six months from launching its third and most modern aircraft carrier, new analysis shows, in what would be a milestone for President Xi Jinping’s effort to project power into the high seas.
The Jiangnan Shipyard near Shanghai has made “steady progress” this year on the vessel, known for now as Type 003, the Center for Strategic and International Studies said in the report dated Tuesday. The center, a Washington-based think tank, added that satellite imagery shows “that the installation of the carrier’s main external components is nearing completion.”
The ship’s use of catapults “is a major leap forward for the People’s Liberation Army Navy,” the report said, because it will be able to “launch fixed-wing aircraft with heavier payloads and more fuel, as well as larger aircraft.” That would put China — whose two active carriers use simpler, “ski-jump” flight decks — into an exclusive club with the U.S. and France.
Xi has pledged to “basically complete” a decadeslong modernization effort of China’s once infantry-dominated military by 2035, with particular focus on building a “blue water” navy. The new carrier would extend the PLA’s effective range further beyond the so-called first island chain, including Taiwan the Philippines and Japan.
The shipyard working on the Type 003 carrier is operated by Jiangnan Shipbuilding Group, a subsidiary of China State Shipbuilding Corp., the world’s largest commercial shipbuilder. The CSIS report added that satellite imagery indicates that work on other military vessels at the facility has slowed in recent months.
The foreign capital flowing into Jiangnan and other shipyards on China’s coast may directly and indirectly support the PLA Navy’s modernization, CSIS said, adding that foreign companies may want to consider whether their vessels should be built alongside such warships.
While the Type 003 would be China’s largest and most modern warship, it’s likely to fall short of the capabilities of either the U.S.’s Nimitz- or Ford-class nuclear-powered supercarriers. The vessel is expected to have conventional diesel propulsion and be closer in size to the Kitty Hawk-class carriers built by the U.S. in the 1960s.
China also lacks the global port network needed to support large capital ships on extended missions. And it’s still developing reliable fifth-generation fighter jets to launch from its carriers.
The Type 003 is years away from going into active service considering “the technical challenges of building a modern aircraft carrier,” according to the center’s report. The U.S. Department of Defense said in an annual assessment released last week that the carrier was expected to be fully operational by 2024.
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