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China’s New Aircraft Carrier Could Launch at Any Moment

China Type 003 Aircraft Carrier
Image: Chinese Internet.

Coming Very Soon – China’s Next Aircraft Carrier – After several years of work at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, China will soon launch its third aircraft carrier – known simply as the Type 003 – it is the largest and most advanced warship built for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). This week its dry dock has been flooded so that the vessel can be floated out. Beijing is reported to be pulling out all stops for the impending launch, and banners with political slogans and flags have already been installed.

“The drydock at Jiangnan is getting flooded with the Type 003 inside. Launch looks like its imminent as early as tomorrow,” tweeted Chinese Navy watcher Alex Luck earlier this week.

Satellite images taken by Planet Labs were posted online on Tuesday and also showed a line of lights at the No 4 dock at the Jiangnan Shipyard where the Type 003 warship has been under construction for several years – although the exact starting date remains unknown. Initial work on China’s second domestically designed carrier, and third carrier overall, had reportedly begun in February 2016.

China’s Great Leap Forward

The Type 003 is larger than its predecessors, yet more importantly, has also been seen as a major technological leap for China.

The new flattop won’t be fully operational until at least 2024, according to United States Department of Defense (DoD) estimates. It will first need to undergo extensive sea trials, but the conventionally powered warship is still a major leap forward for Beijing, which has proceeded with extreme caution in the development of aircraft carriers. The PLAN has only applied technologies that have been fully tested and perfected, Defense News reported earlier this month.

Just a decade, China had no aircraft carriers, and built its first – the Type 001 Liaoning – from the refitted hull of the never-completed Soviet-era Kuznetsov-class aircraft cruiser Varyag; while the Type 002 Shandong, was a domestically-built derivative of that design. Both are short take-off, barrier-arrested recovery (STOBAR) type carriers that utilize “ski jump” forward flight decks instead of catapults for launching aircraft.

The Type 003 should be seen as more than just a third carrier. It is also part of a broader modernization of the Chinese military as Beijing seeks to extend its influence throughout the region. One of the banners near the Jiangnan Shipyard was reported to feature Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision for the military: “world-class armed forces and modern navy,” while another urged the warship’s builder, China State Shipbuilding Corporation, to strive to be the best in the world.

It has been speculated that Xi, who is also head of China’s Central Military Commission, would likely make an appearance in Shanghai to attend the launch of the Type 003.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Xi attends the ceremony because it was his decision to use electromagnetic catapults on the ship,” Liang Guoliang, a Hong Kong-based military observer, told South China Morning Post on Wednesday.

According to Liang, there had been a heated debate within the PLAN over whether to use the older – but proven – steam catapults or to introduce the new electromagnetic technology when work began on the Type 003 aircraft carrier. Xi made the final decision on the catapults, which are used to assist aircraft to take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier.

The United States Navy remains the only other nation to employ such technology on a carrier.

Launch Window Opened

The launch of the carrier could come any day now, as noted by the fact that the shipyard has been cleared of traffic, which would open a path for the Type 003 to enter the Yangtze River. Yet, it could be seen as overdue.

China has often paired military milestones with existing holidays and anniversaries, and there had been speculation that the Type 003 would launch on June 3, which coincided with the Dragon Boat Festival, a national holiday with ancient Chinese origins, as well as the 157th anniversary of the founding of Jiangnan Shipyard.

In fact, the launch of the Type 003 is believed to have been delayed at least twice. There is speculation that the original launch date was to have been on April 23, and would have been part of the PLA Navy’s 73rd-anniversary celebrations. However, work at the shipyard was delayed when Shanghai was locked down amid a Covid-19 outbreak. The city is still only slowly recovering from the latest shutdown.

Despite the delays, the ship is coming and the message is clear – China should be seen as a major naval power.

Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.