The carrier, a still-unnamed naval vessel known simply as the Type 003, could launch in three to six months, three Center for Strategic and International Studies experts have concluded given the visible developments at Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai.
They acknowledged, though, that it is difficult to know what is going on inside the ship and that technical challenges could demand more time.
The Chinese navy, the world’s largest naval force, currently has only two aircraft carriers. The Liaoning was built using the hull of an older Soviet vessel, and the Shandong is a Chinese-built copy of that first ship with some upgrades.
The Chinese carriers closely resemble Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, and are distinguished by their ramp-assisted aircraft launch systems, which can limit a carrier’s combat capability
The newest aircraft carrier is expected to help China step up its carrier game, putting it among more elite navies.
China began building the Type 003 in 2018. In a Department of Defense report on the Chinese military published the following year, the Pentagon said the ship will be larger than its predecessors, fitted with a catapult system for launching planes, and able to deploy with a more capable air wing. And that air wing may include a next-generation fighter.
CSIS experts said in a previous analysis of China’s carrier construction efforts that “when the Type 003 eventually enters service, it will be a formidable addition to China’s navy and allow it to more effectively project power.”
The new ship — China’s third carrier, second domestically-produced carrier, and likely first modern flattop — was starting to really take shape by late May, and by mid-July, the construction had progressed significantly, with the control tower known as “the island” and aircraft catapults clearly visible in high-resolution satellite images from Maxar Technologies.
In recent weeks, Chinese shipyard workers appear to have made more progress on the aircraft carrier, CSIS experts Matthew Funaiole, Joseph Bermudez, and Brian Hart observed.
These experts noted in particular the closure of two large openings in the flight deck, suggesting workers have completed the initial installation of major internal components, like engines and powerplants, for this aircraft carrier, like a conventionally-powered vessel rather than a nuclear-powered ship. These openings were still visible in mid-September.
The CSIS analysis they published Tuesday also said that the most recent satellite images suggest the installation work on the major external components are nearing completion as well.