Satellite photos show China’s new aircraft carrier coming together quickly and reveals more about its design

Chinese aircraft carrier
The Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, departs Hong Kong, Tuesday, July 11, 2017.

  • Satellite imagery shows China has made significant progress on its new carrier in recent weeks.
  • A CSIS analysis of the latest imagery said that certain aspects of the design can now be confirmed.
  • Different from its predecessors, the ship has a flat flight deck and catapults.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

China has made significant progress on its newest aircraft carrier in recent weeks, according to an analysis of the latest satellite imagery.

High-resolution satellite photos taken in May by Maxar Technologies and analyzed by experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies showed the carrier taking shape at Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, but there was still a lot of work to be done.

Satellite image of China's third carrier under construction
A Maxar Technologies high-resolution satellite photo of China’s third aircraft carrier, an unnamed vessel simply known as Type 003, under construction at Jiangnan Shipyard. (Click to enlarge)

A satellite photo taken by Maxar about six weeks later and analyzed by CSIS shows China has nearly finished work on the carrier’s flight deck, sponsons, and basic superstructure, the Washington, DC-based think tank reported.

Satellite imagery of China's third carrier under construction
A Maxar Technologies high-resolution satellite photo of China’s third aircraft carrier under construction. (Click to enlarge)

Work on the ship, which will be China’s third aircraft carrier but its first modern flattop, began in 2018.

In a Department of Defense report on the Chinese military published the following year, the Pentagon said that the vessel “will likely be larger and fitted with a catapult launch system.” Recent satellite imagery confirms this earlier assessment.

CSIS estimates the length of the new ship to be approximately 318 meters, making it larger than both of its predecessors, Liaoning and Shandong. And the superstructure, also known as the island, is smaller, leaving more room on the flight deck for a larger air wing.

The carrier’s flight deck is flat, and a catapult-assisted launch system is clearly visible in the latest photos, though it is unclear if the ship will use steam catapults like the US Navy’s Nimitz-class carriers or electromagnetic ones like those on the newer Ford-class carriers. Either way, catapults will be a substantial improvement over previous designs.

Catapults allow for a more diverse air wing of not just fighters but also early warning aircraft. They would also allow China’s fighters to reach their potential. Both the Liaoning and Shandong feature ski jump designs that limit how much weaponry and fuel China’s heavy J-15 carrier-based fighter jets can launch with, reducing the overall combat power of the carriers.

Liaoning, China's first aircraft carrier
Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier

China’s newest carrier, a conventionally powered flattop, is expected to be comparable to the US Navy’s decommissioned Kitty Hawk-class aircraft carriers, though it is likely to have more advanced onboard systems than the ships first fielded in the 1960s.

In June, the CSIS experts that have been following this carrier’s development predicted that China would not be able to launch the ship until 2022, but in their latest progress report, they wrote that “recent imagery suggests that the vessel may be ready to launch later this year.”

“We didn’t expect it to be moving quite so quick,” Matthew Funaiole, a senior fellow with the China Power Project at CSIS, told Insider.

“It looks like they have moved a little faster than we expected,” he said. “They are moving at quite the clip. At this point, I would not be surprised if it ends up being put into the water sometime later this year.”

Funaiole and other experts at CSIS wrote in their June report on the new aircraft carrier that the vessel is expected to “be a formidable addition to China’s navy and allow it to more effectively project power” when it finally enters service, which could be years after launch.

China has been rapidly churning out new, more capable ships, such as its new carrier, but there is more to building a great power navy than just the quantity and quality of the ships in the fleet.

China has made considerable strides as it builds a carrier force, especially with its newest carrier, but it will likely take time to develop the carrier operations knowledge and experience necessary to use its carriers effectively. The Chinese navy has had aircraft carriers for less than a decade.

China is expected to build additional aircraft carriers, potentially pursuing a nuclear-powered carrier like the 11 flattops operated by the US Navy, though that remains to be seen.

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