- Over the past week, a number of photos of China’s third aircraft carrier have been leaked online.
- The pictures appear to show a ship that is very different from the first two Chinese airlines.
- “It’s not an American airline as it is today, but it’s still a big step for China,” said one expert.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
China’s third aircraft carrier, which is expected to be the country’s first modern flat screen, is beginning to take shape at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, and new images that have been steadily leaking online seem to be emerging.
Prior to 2012, China did not have any aircraft carriers, but over the years it has managed to develop a modest aviation capability.
China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy has two aircraft carriers, Liaoning and Shandong.
The country built the first from the rebuilt hull of an old Soviet ship. The second, which was China’s first originally produced aircraft carrier, was a larger, slightly improved replica of Liaoning.
– @ Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino) June 6, 2021
But recent photos of China’s third carrier, collected from Chinese social media and posted on Twitter by Andreas Rupprecht, an expert on the Chinese military, suggest what has long been expected of this new ship – that it will likely be a step forward to the country’s aircraft carrier program.
Thomas Shugart, an adjunct senior fellow in the defense program at the Center for New American Security, said the ship “is definitely starting to look like a CATOBAR aircraft carrier in real time.”
—Thomas Shugart (@ tshugart3) June 7, 2021
There are still a number of unknowns, but as more and more photos come out, they paint a clearer picture of how the construction of this new ship, a still unnamed vessel designated as Type 003, is progressing.
– @ Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino) June 9, 2021
There have even been some close-ups of the new aircraft carrier.
– @ Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino) June 3, 2021
And some online observers have already started trying to figure out what the carrier will look like based on the pictures of the construction, though some experts suggest it may still be a little too early to tell for sure.
–Caiyun Xiangjiang (@louischeung_hk) June 10, 2021
Matthew Funaiole, senior fellow and expert in China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, looked at satellite images of construction work in Jiangnan this week.
“They still have not put the island in place. They are still working on the aircraft deck. There is still a lot of work to be done,” he told Insider. But some things about the ship are starting to get clearer.
The vessel is significantly larger than the first two airlines, allowing China to deploy a larger and more diverse aircraft, which is a necessary step as China is working to build a modern fleet capable of projecting power further from its widths.
He said that given the development of China’s third aircraft carrier as well as China’s interests, there was reason to suspect that the country would have some sort of catapult system for launching aircraft, but this has not been confirmed.
“They’re still working on the front of the ship,” Funaiole said.
“It is very likely that the ship will have some sort of catapult system,” he added. “We’re still trying to figure out what it’s going to look like, but it’s hard to imagine it does not have a catapult system.”
“It would not really make sense, insofar as China aims to do with its airline program, to have a different ski ramp style,” he said.
His assessment is generally in line with the Defense Ministry’s observations in its annual report on China’s military power.
Construction of the Type 003 aircraft carrier began in 2018. The following year, the Ministry of Defense published an assessment of the project, writing that the ship “is likely to be larger” than Liaoning and Shandong and equipped with a catapult launch system. . “
“This design enables it to support additional fighter jets, fixed-wing aircraft with early warning, and faster aircraft operations,” the departmental report said.
The first two Chinese aircraft carriers both use ski jump-assisted short start-but-arrest recovery (STOBAR) launch systems to sort aircraft. This design can be seen on other aircraft carriers, such as Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.
Ski jumps are significantly less efficient than the steam or electromagnetic catapult-assisted take-off-arrest systems (CATOBAR) used by US airlines because they lower the maximum take-off weight for airline-based aircraft.
The design presents certain problems for the Chinese Shenyang J-15, China’s primary airline fighter.
The aircraft, which is based on an incomplete prototype of the Russian air superiority fighter Sukhoi Su-33, which China acquired from Ukraine and then conversely designed, is one of the heaviest aviation fighters out there.
The J-15 is a skilled multirole fighter, and it can carry a decent amount of weapons and fuel.
The big problem is that the design of China’s current aircraft carriers means that it can take off with only a small fraction of the weapons and fuel it is designed to carry, significantly reducing its range and overall combat capability.
Timothy Heath, a senior defense researcher at Rand Corp., told former Insider that “with a ski trail configuration, weight becomes your enemy, and the J-15, like a heavy aircraft, begins to fall victim to its own design.”
A modern airline equipped with “catapults would allow the J-15s benefits to come into play,” he said. Reporting as well as some leaked images suggest that China is already developing a CATOBAR variant of the J-15.
There are also signs that China may already be looking beyond the J-15 after its aviation giant. Some have speculated that the FC-31, a Chinese stealth fighter still under development, may be the next carrier fighter.
This week, pictures appeared online showing an FC-31 mock-up on the “flight deck” of a concrete carrier in Wuhan, China. The undated photos appear to offer some support for theories about the next steps for Chinese shipping.
– @ Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino) June 8, 2021
“They are a place now where they understand how to build aircraft carriers, but it is still an area where China still has some unknowns to find out from the marine aviation side,” Funaiole said, adding: “It is likely that they ”will explore all available options to find out what works best. “
He said China seemed to be making great strides in promoting its airline program. “It’s not an American carrier as things are today,” he said of China’s third aircraft carrier, “but it’s still a huge step for China. It’s impressive what they’ve been able to do in a short time.”
While it may take a while before the final design is ready, the new aircraft carrier appears to be a “pretty significant upgrade from where they are right now,” Funaiole said. “But this is where you get into the question of what it really means in practice,” he added.
“The biggest battle for China is not going to be technology,” he said. “It’s going to be the staff. And it’s not a bank on the Chinese. They’m just new to it.”
According to the Pentagon, China has the largest fleet and is building new ships faster than any other country. But it still learns what it means to have a great power fleet.
While it will inevitably take China time to develop the knowledge and experience of transportation operations to go along with its growing fleet of flattops, the country’s newest carrier suggests that the country is making progress as it strives to build a world – class fighting force by the middle of this century. .
The Pentagon said last year, in its latest assessment of China’s military power, that the third Chinese carrier would likely be operational by 2024 with additional aircraft carriers to follow.