China's Third-Generation Aircraft Carrier is Getting Ready to Launch

The Type 003 at an earlier stage of construction. The two large penetrations in the center of the flight deck have since been closed (File image via Baidu / Chinese internet)

Published Nov 10, 2021 7:37 PM by The Maritime Executive

China currently has two aircraft carriers, both built to a Soviet design with ski-jump ramps at the bow. Their ability to launch effective fighter sorties is limited by their lack of catapults, which are needed to push more heavily-laden aircraft up to speed and off the deck. 

China's third carrier design, designated Type 003, does not have this limitation. The vessel is built with diesel-electric propulsion and (likely) electromagnetic launch catapults, skipping over first-generation steam catapult systems in favor of the latest technology developed by the U.S. Navy. This capability will enable it to support more fighter aircraft, fixed-wing airborne early warning aircraft, and higher-tempo flight operations - increasing its air wing's reach and effectiveness. 

The first-in-class Type 003 appears to be ready to launch within three to six months, according to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Using satellite imaging provided by Maxar, CSIS observed that two large penetrations in the flight deck - for the insertion of large machinery and components - have recently been sealed up, and temporary work tents have been erected over the deck areas for catapult installation. 

The interrelationship between Chinese civilian and military shipbuilding is on full display in Maxar's photos. Jiangnan is part of state-owned Chinese State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC), the world's biggest civilian shipbuilder, and hull sections for new merchant ships are clearly visible under construction in the adjacent graving dock. According to CSIS, more container ship blocks are under construction just aft of the new carrier, in the same graving dock, and they will have to be moved before the launch. Even the space currently occupied by the carrier was previously occupied by a French-owned boxship (Jiangnan builds CMA CGM's new series of LNG-fueled vessels). 

After launch, the Type 003 will still have to undergo fitting-out, sea trials and qualifications, and it is expected to enter service by 2024, according to the Pentagon. Additional carriers will follow. 

For its air wing, the PLA is developing a catapult-capable version of its J-15, a non-stealth fourth-generation strike fighter derived from the Russian Su-33. However, flight-test photographs of a carrier-capable version of China's FC-31 stealth fighter have recently begun circulating on the internet. The new prototype fifth-generation fighter has a launch bar fitted to its nose gear for catapult operations, along with folding wings for tighter stowage.