A leading global think tank on Tuesday circulated satellite imagery of a shipyard outside Shanghai that purportedly shows construction of a new aircraft carrier for China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy. This vessel is expected to be larger and more capable than existing Chinese ships.
An expert warned the vessel will outclass any other warship in Asia, including those operated by Japan and India.
The images, taken in April, were shared by the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies as part of its ChinaPower project. The images show work on the bow and main hull sections of a large vessel at the Jiangnan Shipyard, consistent with what CSIS expected for a third aircraft carrier for the PLAN.
Though the satellite images were obscured by cloud cover and haze, CSIS estimates that the ship’s “main hull section is approximately 40 metres wide”. This would give it bigger dimensions than China’s existing carrier, the Liaoning, and its first indigenous carrier, which is currently undergoing sea trials. China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier has been referred to as the Type-001A and features incremental improvements over the Liaoning; the third ship is being referred to as the ‘Type-002’.
The South China Morning Post quoted Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based expert, as saying the Type-002 “may have a displacement of around 80,000 tons”. This would make the Type 002 the second-largest type of aircraft carrier in the world after the US Navy’s ‘super carriers’, which displace over 100,000 tons.
Last week, the Pentagon released a report detailing the progress of China’s aircraft carrier plans. The report estimated the third aircraft carrier could become operational by 2022. The CSIS analysis of the imagery showed considerable improvement in the pace of activity at the Jiangnan shipyard over the past six months. This includes construction of fabrication halls the size of “several soccer pitches” and building of a floodable basin to float the vessel into the Yangtze River estuary.
The size of China’s third aircraft carrier is significant as it is expected to be fitted with a catapult launch system, enabling aircraft to take off at heavier weights. Both the Liaoning, purchased from Ukraine, and the Type-001A lack catapults and use angled ‘ski-jumps’. Lack of catapults limit the weight at which aircraft can take off and reduce their utility, particularly for air-to-surface missions. A catapult-equipped carrier, on the other hand, would be capable of launching fighter aircraft with a full load of fuel, missiles and bombs.
China is believed to be close to fielding its second aircraft carrier, the country’s first domestically-produced aircraft carrier. This new ship recently completed its fifth sea trial, and the Pentagon reports that this vessel will “likely join the fleet by the end of 2019.”
While based on the Liaoning, the second carrier is slightly bigger, creating the potential for a larger carrier air wing, most likely consisting of the J-15 Flying Sharks with which the Liaoning currently sails. Like the Liaoning, the Chinese navy’s newest carrier will use a ski jump-assisted short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) launch system to sortie aircraft.
“China began construction of its second domestically built aircraft carrier in 2018, which will likely be larger and fitted with a catapult launch system,” the Pentagon explained in its annual report to Congress on military and security developments involving China. “This design will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations.”
Catapult launch systems are much more effective than the ski jumps, which tend to put greater strain on the aircraft and tend to result in reductions in operational range, payload size, and ultimately the number of flights the onboard aircraft can fly.
In addition, a catapult-equipped carrier would allow China to launch specialised aircraft equipped with airborne early warning radars, similar to the US-built E-2 Hawkeye. Such an AEW aircraft would be superior in most parameters to helicopter-mounted systems like the Indian Navy’s KA-31 fleet.
Despite the progress of work on China’s third aircraft carrier, it remains unclear whether it will use nuclear propulsion. Ian Storey, an analyst with ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told Reuters that once China’s third aircraft carrier was completed, it would “outclass any warship from any Asian country, including India and Japan.”
The Indian Navy currently uses the INS Vikramaditya, purchased from Russia over a decade ago. Both the Vikramaditya and the under-construction INS Vikrant use ski-jumps and displace around 45,000 tons.
Last week, British media agencies reported a UK-based company was offering its design for the Indian Navy’s proposed third carrier, which is being called INS Vishal. INS Vishal is expected to displace over 60,000 tons and be equipped with catapults, but it is yet unclear when construction of such a vessel would start.
The progress on China’s third carrier comes amid statements by Chinese defence experts who expect the PLAN to deploy six aircraft carriers by 2035. The South China Morning Post reported in February that experts think around four of these new aircraft carriers would be nuclear powered. Nuclear propulsion allows for increased carriage of weapons and fuel for aircraft on board the carrier and also allows for adequate power to operate catapults.