Say Cheese! Satellite Photos Reveal China’s New Aircraft Carrier

David Axe

High-resolution, commercial satellite images of China’s Jiangnan shipyard in September 2019 provided the clearest glimpse yet of the Chinese navy’s third and largest aircraft carrier. 

Reuters obtained the photos from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. In the images, construction of the Type 002 carrier appears to be well underway at the shipyard near Shanghai.

The Type 002 would be the Chinese fleet’s first full-size carrier with catapults for launching heavy aircraft. Beijing’s first flattop, the Type 001 Liaoning, is a refurbished ex-Soviet vessel with a ramp for launching planes instead of catapults. The Chinese-made Type 001A carrier is a copy of the Type 001.

Liaoning, which foreign analysts have described as a training and test vessel, is in service. The Type 001A is mostly complete and could enter service in late 2019. CSIS experts told Reuters that shipyard workers could complete the Type 002’s hull by late 2020.

The shipyard quickly has expanded across what once was abandoned farmland, Reuters reported. "We can see slow but steady progress on the hull, but I think the really surprising thing these images show is the extensive infrastructure buildup that has gone on simultaneously," CSIS analyst Matthew Funaiole told the wire service.

"It is hard to imagine all this is being done for just one ship," he added. "This looks more like a specialised space for carriers and or other larger vessels."

Chinese sources have made no secret of Beijing’s intention eventually to build up a fleet of six carriers, two for each of the Chinese navy’s northern, eastern and southern regional fleets. One vessel in each fleet could deploy while the other underwent maintenance.

Beijing might try to copy the United States’ scheme for deploying carriers. The U.S. fleet plans to deploy six of its 11 carriers within 30 days of a crisis, plus a seventh within 90 days.

In 2018, each of China’s regional fleets possessed between 20 and 30 major surface warships, at least a dozen submarines and a handful of amphibious vessels. Liaoning, which commissioned in 2012, belongs to the northern fleet.

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