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A satellite image of the Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai, taken on Tuesday, shows the dry dock has been flooded. Photo: Planet Labs

Chinese shipyard ready to launch Type 003 aircraft carrier, satellite images show

  • The dry dock has been flooded so the vessel can be floated, and banners with political slogans and flags can be seen on the warship
  • After it is launched, the carrier will go through a process of testing and equipment installation that analysts say will take years
China could be about to launch its third and most advanced aircraft carrier, according to the latest commercial satellite images of the shipyard.

The images – provided by Planet Labs and taken on Tuesday – show a line of lights at the No 4 dock at the Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai, where the Type 003 warship has been under construction.

They also show that the dry dock has been flooded so that the vessel can be floated, and banners with political slogans and flags can be seen on the warship.

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But so far there has been no notice from the Maritime Safety Administration warning passing commercial ships of any special arrangements in the waters around the shipyard – as happened when the previous aircraft carrier, the Shandong, was launched in 2017.

One of the banners features President Xi Jinping’s vision for the military – “world-class armed forces and modern navy” – while another urges the warship’s builder, China State Shipbuilding Corporation, to strive to be the best in the world.

Their appearance has raised speculation that Xi – who also heads the Central Military Commission – could make an appearance in Shanghai to attend the launch.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Xi attends the ceremony because it was his decision to use electromagnetic catapults on the ship,” said Liang Guoliang, a Hong Kong-based military observer.

According to Liang, there was a heated debate in the navy over whether to use the old steam catapults or to try the new electromagnetic technology when work began on the Type 003 aircraft carrier in 2016, and Xi made the final decision. Catapults are used to assist aircraft to take off from the deck of a warship.

Liang said the Type 003 may not even leave the dock after its launch – instead it could be more of a “floating ceremony” before it goes through hydrostatic pressure testing.

“That checks for the hardness of the hull, because any tiny defect on the deck will have a huge impact on the operation of its electromagnetic catapult systems,” he said.

Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at the Taiwanese Naval Academy, expected the launch to offer a glimpse of some of the advanced warship’s new technologies.

“For example, a pod propeller, which would increase its speed and manoeuvrability, but it needs a lot of power,” Lu said.

Pod propulsion technology is not new but the electric-powered propellers have rarely been used in warships because of the power consumption.

The Type 003 also features electromagnetic catapult technology developed by Rear Admiral Ma Weiming, a leading Chinese naval engineer.

China has been rapidly modernising its military in recent years and plans to build at least four aircraft carrier strike groups by 2030 to become the world’s second-biggest blue-water navy after the United States.

Its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, started as a half-built Soviet Kuznetsov-class vessel that was modified and refitted before it went into service in 2012. That was followed by the Shandong, which was built in China but based on the Liaoning design. Aircraft take off from both warships on a Soviet-era ski-jump ramp.

They are both conventional aircraft carriers, as is the Type 003, but a planned fourth carrier is expected to be nuclear-powered.

The launch of the Type 003 is believed to have been delayed twice before. A launch date of April 23 would have been part of the PLA Navy’s 73rd anniversary celebrations, but work at the shipyard was delayed when Shanghai was locked down amid a Covid-19 outbreak. It was then expected to be launched on June 3, to coincide with the Dragon Boat Festival, but it was apparently postponed with no explanation given.

Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canada-based military magazine Kanwa Asian Defence, said once the warship was floated it would go into a new phase of weapons systems installation that could take nearly two years.

“There aren’t any missiles and sophisticated phased-array radars on the Type 003 platform [at present] – all the equipment will only be installed after a successful launch,” Chang said.

The warship will also go through testing of its satellite communication and radar systems, drainage, air conditioning and other equipment after the launch, according to Zhou Chenming, a researcher at the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank in Beijing.

He said the Type 003 would need five years to reach initial operational capability, or the basic requirements for it to be deployed in combat.