China’s Newest Aircraft Carrier Is Nearing Launch. It Could Rival Those in the West

Date:16 June 2022 Author: Juandre

The unnamed ship is the third and most advanced yet.

New satellite imagery shows that China’s new aircraft carrier is nearing launch and could leave drydock very soon. The unnamed ship, known as Type 003, will be Beijing’s most advanced and capable yet. The carrier will also embark a new generation of airplanes, from fighters to support aircraft, that will give it many of the same capabilities of Western aircraft carriers.

The image at the top of this story, taken by commercial satellite operator Planet Labs, shows the massive warship in drydock at Jiangnan Shipyard, near Shanghai. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) began construction of the new carrier in 2018. Type 003 will be the third to join the Chinese navy, following the flat-tops Shandong and Liaoning.

Recent estimates place the carrier’s launch sometime this month, even as early as today, but that does not mean the ship will be ready for active duty anytime soon; in naval parlance, launching doesn’t mean a warship is complete. They’re built in a drydock and then, once the hull and main structures are complete, the drydock is flooded with water and the ship is floated out to sit by a pier. June 14 satellite images from Planet Labs do appear to show Type 003 in a flooded drydock.

From there, a warship typically takes another year or two to complete, depending on its size, to “fit out,” as everything from radars and missiles to chairs are brought aboard. So yes, the ship will “launch” any day now, but it actually won’t be complete until at least 2023 or 2024.

Although the ship is incomplete, we can make out many of its features already in place. The ship has two aircraft elevators on the starboard side, fore and aft of the island superstructure. The island, home to aircraft and ship operations, is smaller and more compact than those on previous Chinese carriers.

The most important new feature on Type 003 is the use of catapults to launch aircraft. The new carrier has three catapults: two along the main flight deck, and a third on the angled flight deck running along the port side. The catapults are identifiable in the image at the top of the story as the three long channels running lengthwise along the flight deck.

The older carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, use a ski ramp to launch jet fighters into the air. Although effective, this limits the takeoff weight of fighters, reducing the amount of fuel and munitions each can carry. That in turn reduces their range and effectiveness in combat. Another disadvantage of ski ramps is that they are also incapable of launching propeller-driven aircraft, meaning China’s first two carriers are unable to embark crucial support aircraft.

The real question is what kind of catapult system Type 003 will have. The major navies of the world used steam-powered catapults for more than 80 years. Although effective, the complex routing of steam from the bowels of the ship up to the flight deck takes up a lot of internal volume. Steam catapults are also incapable of fine-tuning their power to allow smaller, lighter uncrewed aircraft to safely launch.

 

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