New Chinese Aircraft Carrier’s Dry Dock Is Flooded, Launch Imminent

The highly anticipated launch of China’s newest and most advanced aircraft carrier to date, presently known as the Type 003, looks set to happen in the very near future according to satellite imagery that The War Zone has obtained from Planet Labs.

The image in question was taken at 7:21 AM Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) on June 14, or 3:21 PM local time in Shanghai. At the time of publishing, it is the morning of June 15 in that city.

China’s still-under-construction Type 003 aircraft carrier at Jiangnan Shipyard on June 14. The dry dock has clearly been flooded, at least partially. PHOTO © 2022 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

The shot shows the Type 003 carrier, which is still undergoing the final phases of its construction in Shanghai, in a now flooded dry dock. Decorations on the catapults, along with flags hung over its island and down its side, as well as those along the perimeter of the flight deck, are plainly visible. This is all well in line with what has been observed at previous launches of Chinese aircraft carriers and other major warships.

The decorations on the Type 003 carrier are clearly visible in the June 14 satellite image. PHOTO © 2022 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

The exact date for the launch of the Type 003, construction of which began at Jiangnan Shipyard in the mid-2010s, has recently been the topic of great speculation. Experts and observers had posited that this event might have been set to occur just over two weeks ago after Shanghai’s Maritime Safety Administration publicly announced that five commercial ships at Jiangnan would be moved out of the same general area of the shipyard where the carrier is being built.

This would have meant the launch would have coincided with Shanghai’s Dragon Boat Festival. Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, part of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, pointed out on Twitter that June 15, the new possible date for the Type 003’s launch, happens to be the birthday of Chinese President Xi Jinping and would be a “very appropriate gift.”

Xi, who has led China since 2013, has overseen an extremely significant period of modernization and general expansion of the country’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has also adopted an increasingly aggressive foreign policy, especially toward Taiwan and the United States.

The Type 003 carrier is a key centerpiece of the Chinese government’s efforts to not only expand and improve its overall military capabilities, but also its ability to project that power further beyond the country’s borders. The ship has an advanced catapult-assisted take-off barrier arrested recovery (CATOBAR) design that is fundamentally different from that of the PLA Navy’s (PLAN) two existing carriers.

The PLAN’s Type 001 Liaoning began life as a Soviet Kuznetsov class ship, the Varyag, which was never completed, while the Type 002 Shandong is a local derivative of that design. Both are short take-off, barrier-arrested recovery (STOBAR) types that feature “ski jump” forward flight decks instead of catapults for launching aircraft. Catapults drastically increase the payloads of aircraft that can fly off the deck and it also unlocks new carrier-capable aircraft design possibilities, among many other benefits.

Beyond simply using catapults, the Type 003 has been widely reported to feature an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) rather than a more traditional steam-powered arrangement. As already noted, the ship’s three catapults can be seen prominently decorated in today’s satellite imagery, underscoring their particular significance.

To date, the U.S. Navy’s Ford class is the only other type of carrier in the world to feature an EMALS, which, at least in principle, offers various benefits, including faster sortie generation rates and the ability to fine-tune the amount of force used to launch an aircraft. An EMALS has the potential to help reduce general wear and tear on aircraft being thrown off the deck by using only the force necessary to get them airborne and also expands the range of types that can readily make use of the system. This could include designs that are much smaller and lighter than traditional carrier aircraft, such as smaller drones and unmanned combat air vehicles.

Recent photo of the J-35/FC-31 navalized variant.

The Type 003 will almost certainly carry a fundamentally new air wing, compared to those found on the Liaoning and Shandong, as well. As work on the new carrier has progressed, China’s state-run aviation industry has also been working on new and advanced carrier-capable aircraft including a navalized version of the F-35-esque FC-31/J-35 stealth fighter jet and the KJ-600 airborne early warning and control aircraft, a rough analog to the U.S. Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye.

Improved Flanker derivatives, such as the J-15T fighter and J-15D electronic warfare jet, are likely to fly from the Type 003’s deck, too. Altogether, this mix of existing and planned aircraft very much mimics the expected future composition of the U.S. Navy’s carrier air wings. The PLAN has clear ambitions to integrate various tiers of unmanned platforms on all of its aircraft carriers, and other ships, too, as you can read more about here. Altogether, this mix of existing and planned aircraft very much mimics the expected future composition of the U.S. Navy’s carrier air wings.

In addition, while aircraft carriers are and will continue to be important to the PLAN operational planning close to home, including in any crisis over Taiwan and in support of activities in the hotly contested South China Sea, it is actively moving to be able to deploy these ships and other surface actions groups further abroad.

Last year, U.S. military officials disclosed that they had assessed that the Chinese military’s naval base in the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti had been expanded in such a way that it could support visits by the country’s existing carriers. This facility is China’s only overseas naval base to date, though it is at least seeking access to basing options elsewhere, including at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base. The Chinese government is helping to fund the expansion of that base. Cambodian authorities have persistently denied U.S. government claims that the new construction there will be exclusively for use by the PLA.

It is important to note that, even after its launch, the Type 003 is still likely years away from entering full operational service. The move to the CATOBAR concept of operations is a massive one that will take time to perfect. The U.S. military has mostly recently said publicly that it expects the ship to enter service in 2024.

At the same time, the launch of the Type 003 carrier, which looks all but certain to come in the very near future, will mark an extremely important step forward in the PLAN’s efforts to expand its carrier capabilities and China’s growing ability to project military power around the world.

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