By Ben Westcott, CNN
A new Chinese aircraft carrier with technology almost equaling the capabilities of its US counterparts could be launched as early as February next year, according to satellite imagery analysis by a Washington-based think tank.
In images provided by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the aircraft carrier – known only as Type 003 – can be seen about to be completed on October 23, in the Jiangnan Shipyard. in Shanghai.
Installation of major external and internal components, including power plants and the aircraft launch system, appear to be completed or about to be completed, CSIS said. Only a few additional items – such as radars and weapon systems – remain to be installed before the ship can slide into the Yangtze River, analysts added.
“Based on the information available and the progress observed in Jiangnan, the authors estimate that Type 003 will be launched in about three to six months,” the SCRS said in a comment published on November 9.
When ready, the ship will be the third Chinese aircraft carrier and the second to be produced in the country.
But unlike its sister ships Liaoning and Shandong, experts said the Type 003 would have more advanced aircraft launch technology, similar to the catapult system used by US aircraft carriers. .
The new launchers will allow China to launch a wider variety of Type 003 aircraft faster and with more ammunition.
Matthew Funiole, senior researcher at CSIS’s China Project, said the Type 003 would be the Chinese military’s “first foray into a modern aircraft carrier.”
“It’s a pretty big step forward,” he said. “They are really committed to a transporter program, and they continue to push the boundaries of what they can do.”
China now has the largest naval force in the world, and aircraft carriers are the main ships of the all-powerful fleet.
Massive ships are essentially a mobile air base, enabling the rapid and long-term deployment of aircraft and weapons in a combat theater.
But their value isn’t just in terms of combat ability, Funiole said. They are also of great value in terms of diplomatic prestige and “projection of power”.
“China wants to have a world-class navy. He wants to signal to the world that he has a world class navy, (and) try to convince the nations of the region or the world that he is on par with the United States, ”he said. And the symbol of US naval power internationally is its fleet of aircraft carriers, Funiole added.
China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was an unfinished Soviet-era ship that Beijing purchased from Ukraine in 1998, updated and finally put into service in 2012.
The Chinese military used the technological knowledge gained from this ship to build its first domestically-built aircraft carrier, Shandong, which entered service in December 2019.
But although the first two Chinese aircraft carriers increased their naval power, their capacity was still far behind the United States, which has a total of 11 of the ships in service.
Moreover, Liaoning and Shandong were both based on outdated Soviet technology. Both of these aircraft carriers used the ski jump launch system, where planes simply took off from a slight ramp, while US aircraft carriers used a more advanced catapult system to launch their planes.
Planes launched by catapults can take off faster and with greater amounts of fuel and ammunition, giving them an advantage over planes launched by ski jump, which depend on their own power during takeoff.
The Type 003 appears to have the same catapult technology as the United States, Funiole said, and may even have advanced in the use of electromagnetic launchers – skipping the steam launch systems still used on all American ships except the more recent.
With the new launch system, China can deploy a new mix of aircraft at sea, including airborne early warning and control devices, tankers and electronic jamming aircraft. A US Congressional research report in October said the Type 003 is expected to have a displacement of around 100,000 tonnes, comparable to a US carrier of the same class.
However, despite the advanced launch system, Funiole said there are still signs the Chinese carrier is lagging behind its U.S. counterparts, which have more catapults, larger airway and more elevators to allow faster deployment of aircraft.
All US aircraft carriers are also nuclear powered, while the Type 003 is said to operate with conventional steam propulsion, which Funiole says would limit its range. “(Although) it may be less of a factor for China right now, as many of its interests lie in the nearby seas,” he said.
American Naval Advantage
According to analysts, there is a major factor that will allow the US fleet to remain superior to that of China for the foreseeable future: practice.
The United States has operated aircraft carriers in both combat and peacetime since pre-WWII, and has extensive experience in crewing ships and integrating them with the rest of its navy.
“We have been in carrier operations for generations and generations and we have a number of different operators, engineers and technicians who have worked there who can pass this knowledge on to those who will follow them,” said Funiole.
By comparison, China has only been operating aircraft carriers since 2012 and this experience gap is not “something you can just jump forward,” Funiole added.
Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy at King’s College London, said modern aircraft carriers have “incredibly complex capabilities” and the development of technology falls far short of using it effectively.
“This complexity is the result of both the difficulty of developing and harmonizing the technologies to operate air squadrons from a mobile platform, and the challenge of building a ‘group’ of warships to operate from a mobile platform. support it and protect it, ”he said.
China also has little experience putting together the right mix of support ships in what the US Navy calls a carrier strike group. These include destroyers and frigates to provide defense against attacks from submarines and airs, as well as ships to maintain and supply the combat ships that make up the attack group.
“Very few countries have aircraft carriers, and even fewer have aircraft carriers capable of maintaining a high operational tempo, whatever the weather conditions, night or day,” Patalano said.
Get the latest technology
Once Type 003 is launched, it will need to be tested and fully equipped before it is ready for service and officially entering service.
Initially, the US Department of Defense estimated that the Type 003 would be ready for active service by 2023, but has now pushed that date back to 2024.
The aircraft carrier Shandong also took two years between its launch in 2017 and its entry into service in 2019. Additionally, if the Type 003 aircraft carrier uses electromagnetic launch technology for its catapults, it could have a hard time keeping them. make it work.
Even the United States had difficulty using the same system on their latest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, resulting in long deployment delays.
Then there is the issue of the last plane for the new carrier.
“The challenge of judging an aircraft carrier program goes beyond the construction of the ship,” said Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the Joint Intelligence Center at US Pacific Command.
The Chinese J-31 aircraft carrier fighter prototype, a fifth-generation aircraft similar to the US Navy’s F-35s, has just been revealed, Schuster said. With several years of J-31 development remaining and the formation of a deployable air wing afterwards, Schuster estimates that it will take 2026 before the Type 003 is fully operational.
Funiole said there were no signs of building a fourth Chinese carrier yet, although there were rumors that one was under development or construction. “I didn’t see any visual evidence of it,” he said.
In fact, overall, Funiole said Jiangnan Shipyard was showing signs of abandoning the rapid pace of military shipbuilding seen in recent years.
Satellite images appeared to show renewed interest in orders for commercial ships – including freighters and tankers – rather than producing new ships for the People’s Liberation Navy.
But Funiole said that rather than slowing down China’s naval development, the commercial building could help it.
“(This) massive push for commercial production is valuable,” he said. “It generates key revenue and some of that revenue is probably helping to spur this military modernization.”
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CNN’s Brad Lendon contributed to this story.