Signs Point to China's Third Aircraft Carrier Launching Soon

Steady progress on the construction of China’s third aircraft carrier has continued throughout 2021, and the vessel—commonly known as the Type 003—may launch in the coming months. Commercial satellite imagery of Jiangnan Shipyard captured on October 23, 2021, reveals that the installation of the carrier’s main external components is nearing completion. Work on other military vessels at Jiangnan appears to have slowed as the shipyard works to fill commercial orders.

The last several weeks witnessed a significant shift in the visual appearance of the Type 003. Sometime between September 18 and October 23, the two large openings in the vessel’s deck were sealed shut. These gaps allowed for large internal components, such as the engines and powerplants, to be inserted into the hull. Their closure suggests that the initial installation of major internal components has been completed. It is worth noting that the rear opening is not yet fully flush with the rest of the deck.

Other major components of the carrier are nearing completion, including the vessel’s catapults, which will assist with launching aircraft. One of the bow catapults remains covered by environmental shelters, indicating that workers are still installing and testing the system. The second bow catapult is not yet covered by environmental shelters, but it will be once installation and testing begin. Behind the two bow catapults, work is underway (underneath environmental shelters) on a third catapult on the ship’s port side.

The inclusion of catapults on the Type 003 is a major leap forward for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). China’s two existing aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and Shandong, rely on less advanced ski jump-style takeoff systems. The Type 003’s new Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) launch system will enable the PLAN to launch fixed-wing aircraft with heavier payloads and more fuel, as well as larger aircraft that have a lower thrust-to-weight ratio. Most CATOBAR systems are steam driven, but it is widely rumored that China has developed an electromagnetic launch system similar to the one developed for the U.S. Navy’s new Gerald R. Ford class of carriers.

While major headway has been made on the Type 003, there are several signs to watch for before the carrier slips into the waters of the surrounding Yangtze River. Most notably, the vessel’s two starboard elevators, which will move aircraft between the internal hangar bay and flight deck, have yet to be installed. In the coming weeks, radars may also be outfitted on the vessel’s island and weapon systems moved onto the sponsons. These steps could be completed after launch, but it is generally easier to install larger platforms while a ship is in dry dock, where workers can take advantage of large gantry cranes. Before launch, the large hull blocks of a container ship immediately behind the carrier will need to be moved out of the way.

Based on available information and observed progress at Jiangnan, the authors estimate that the Type 003 will launch in roughly three to six months. The technical challenges of building a modern aircraft carrier could, however, extend this timeline. Even after launch, it will still be years before the Type 003 is commissioned into the PLAN and achieves initial operating capability. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) previously assessed that the third carrier would enter service in 2023, but the latest DOD assessment states that it will enter service by 2024.

While the carrier remains at the forefront of operations at Jiangnan, recent months have seen a significant slowdown in the construction of other military vessels. Satellite imagery of the shipyard from October 23 shows that other surface combatants at Jiangnan are few and far between. This sharply contrasts with previously observed activity, which revealed a flurry of military vessels under construction or being fitted out. There has been no corresponding slowdown in the production of merchant ships. Instead, many of the dual-use facilities at Jiangnan appear to be, at least for now, focused on commercial builds.

This blurring of commercial and military activity is a hallmark of many Chinese shipyards, and the construction history of the Type 003 is a prime example. The carrier currently shares a dry dock with the hull blocks of an unidentified container ship. Before the Type 003 was moved to its current location, a French-owned container ship was being built at the same spot. At the Type 003’s previous build site—an area of the shipyard that appeared custom made for constructing large naval vessels—work on another commercial vessel (likely a liquified natural gas carrier) is now underway.

Crucially, many of the commercial vessels built at Jiangnan are for foreign clients. According to publicly available information, Jiangnan Shipyard is expected to deliver over 40 commercial vessels between November 2021 and 2024. Nearly two-thirds of the orders currently on the books are from companies based outside of mainland China or Hong Kong, including in Brazil, France, the United Arab Emirates, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Sweden, and the Netherlands.

As past CSIS analysis has demonstrated, the dual-use nature of Chinese shipyards should raise significant red flags. The foreign capital flowing into Jiangnan and the dozens of other shipyards that dot China’s coast may both directly and indirectly help buoy the ongoing modernization of the PLAN. Foreign companies would do well to consider whether their vessels should be built alongside Chinese warships—including the Type 003.

Matthew P. Funaiole is the interim director of the iDeas Lab and senior fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. is a senior fellow for imagery analysis (non-resident) with the CSIS iDeas Lab and Korea Chair. Brian Hart is an associate fellow with the CSIS China Power Project.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Matthew P. Funaiole
Vice President, iDeas Lab, Andreas C. Dracopoulos Chair in Innovation and Senior Fellow, China Power Project