BANGKOK (AP) – China’s most advanced aircraft carrier yet appears to be nearing completion, satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press showed Friday, as experts suggested the ship could be launched soon.
The newly developed Type 003 carrier has been under construction at Jiangnan Shipyard northeast of Shanghai since 2018. Satellite images taken by Planet Labs PBC on May 31 suggest work on the ship is nearing completion.
The launch was long-awaited, in what the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank called a “first in China’s ongoing modernization efforts and a symbol of the country’s growing military might”.
CSIS noted in a report that China often links military milestones to existing holidays and anniversaries. It suggested the ship could be launched as soon as Friday to coincide with the national Dragon Boat Festival, as well as the 157th anniversary of the Jiangnan Shipyard’s founding.
The carrier’s deck is clearly visible on the satellite images. In a photo taken Tuesday by wispy clouds, equipment behind the carrier appears to have been removed, a step towards flooding the entire drydock and floating the ship. Photos earlier this month showed work in progress.
Cloud cover prevented Planet Labs’ satellites from capturing images of the shipyard from Wednesday through Friday.
The Chinese Ministry of National Defense did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
While no launch was announced, the state-run Global Times newspaper published a story on Tuesday citing that it “could launch soon”.
It added that the Chinese Navy released a promotional video in April about the country’s aviation program “implying that the country’s third aircraft carrier will be officially unveiled shortly.”
Although the US Department of Defense estimates that the carrier will not be fully operational until 2024, and will first have to undergo extensive sea trials, the carrier is China’s most advanced to date. As with its space program, China has been extremely cautious in developing aircraft carriers, striving only to adopt technologies that have been tested and perfected.
Its development is part of a broader modernization of the Chinese military as it seeks to increase its influence in the region. China already has the largest navy in the world in terms of number of ships, but not close to the capabilities of the US Navy.
Among other assets, the US Navy remains the world’s leader in aircraft carriers, with its armed forces capable of assembling 11 nuclear-powered ships. The Navy also has nine amphibious assault ships, which can also carry helicopters and vertical takeoff jets.
The expected launch of the new Chinese airline comes as the US has increasingly focused on the region, including the South China Sea. The vast maritime region is tense as six governments claim all or part of the strategically vital waterway, through which an estimated $5 trillion in global trade travels annually and which contains rich but rapidly declining fish stocks and significant undersea oil and gas reserves.
China has been by far the most aggressive in asserting its claim to virtually all of the island’s waterway, features and resources.
The US Navy has sailed warships past Chinese-made islands in the sea, which are equipped with airstrips and other military facilities. China insists its territory extends to those islands, while the navy says it is conducting the missions there to ensure the free movement of international trade.
Once primarily a coastal force, the Chinese Navy has expanded its presence to the Indian Ocean, the Western Pacific and beyond in recent years. others also maintain a military presence.
The carrier is the second domestically developed carrier in China, following a Type 002 vessel that is currently undergoing sea trials. The other aircraft carrier is a modified former Soviet ship purchased as a hulk from Ukraine and refurbished over several years as an experimental platform that nevertheless offers significant combat capability with an air wing of Chinese-built fighters developed on the basis of the Russian Su-33.
The new Type 003 class is not only the largest of the three airlines, but is also equipped with a catapult launch system that will “enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing aircraft for early warning and faster flight operations and thus extend the range.” and the effectiveness of its carrier-based attack aircraft,” the US Defense Department said in its November annual report to Congress on the Chinese military.
“In particular, the PRC (People’s Republic of China) aircraft carriers and their planned successor carriers, once operational, will extend air defense coverage beyond the range of coastal and airborne missile systems and enable task force operations at increasingly greater distances,” the ministry said. Defense, adding that the “emerging need of the Chinese Navy for sea-based land attack systems will also increase the PRC’s ability to project power”.
China’s existing carriers weigh about half the size of US Nimitz-class flattops and move about 100,000 tons fully loaded.
Experts from Washington-based CSIS, which has been monitoring the construction for years, said Thursday in an analysis of several satellite images from Maxar Technologies, also taken Tuesday, that a smaller vessel had been cleared and that water is now partially filling part of the dry dock.
But, they said, there was still more work to be done before the ship could leave the dock.
“The stairs that workers use to access the carrier — as well as the support structures and other equipment that runs alongside the ship — should be removed,” CSIS said. “The caisson, which divides the dry dock into segments and makes it possible to work on several ships at the same time, will also be opened to allow the entire dry dock to be filled with water.”
The Wall Street Journal first published the Maxar images of the ship from the CSIS analysis.
___ Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
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