Satellite images taken last month show what appears to be construction work on a third Chinese aircraft carrier at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai.

The People’s Liberation Army’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is back at sea after an extensive midlife refit that reportedly marked its graduation from a Soviet-built training vessel into a fully fledged seagoing airbase.

The nation’s first indigenous carrier, the Type 001A, which is a Liaoning lookalike, is also making headway toward being commissioned this autumn or early next year, and recently underwent several rounds of sea trials that were described by Chinese newspapers as plain sailing.

Now recent satellite imagery has thrown light on progress Beijing has achieved in building its third carrier in Shanghai, which may dwarf its two sister ships and also shed their ski-jump bows to make room for more advanced catapult pads.

These images, shot in April, are the latest evidence that the new vessel known only as the Type 002 will be the PLA’s first full-sized carrier to compete with US flattops.

Images provided by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think-tank, show the Jiangnan Shipyard near the Yangtze River estuary in Shanghai, which is a hive of activity where the future carrier will soon start to take shape: new facilities including gantry cranes, floodable ship basins and sluice gates have been added, most of which were non-existent only six months ago.

Analysts are still trying to pinpoint the specifications of the new vessel because of the scant information from the PLA and Chinese media, but the consensus among them is that it will be the PLA’s first genuine blue navy platform capable of leading a full range of strike-group operations.

Satellite images show new facilities at the shipyard, as well as what appear to be sections of the future carrier. Photos: Reuters via Center for Strategic and International Studies

Specifically, the images dated April 17 show a bow section that appears to end with a flat, 30-meter front and a separate 41-meter-wide hull section, with gantry cranes looming overhead. Fabrication halls the size of several soccer pitches have been built nearby and work appears to be in full swing on a floodable basin.

Observers say the new carrier could be smaller than the United States’ 100,000-ton Nimitzclass and Gerald R Ford-class supercarriers, and Chinese military experts say its displacement could be in the 80,000-ton category.

If that is the case, the future Chinese carrier will be significantly larger than France’s 42,500-ton Charles de Gaulle, Russia’s 58,600-ton Admiral Kuznetsov, Britain’s 65,000-ton  Queen Elizabeth, as well as the 55,000-ton Liaoning, and is thus poised to be the largest ever naval vessel outside of the US. The colossal ship will be propelled by gas turbines and diesel engines.

A collage of the two Chinese carriers, Liaoning and her sister ship. Photos: Weibo
A collage of the two Chinese carriers, the Liaoning (above) and its sister ship, the Type 001A. Photos: Weibo

The PLA Navy, which celebrated its 70th anniversary last month with a parade in the Yellow Sea, is looking to bolster its heft and capabilities in the region and beyond.

Estimates vary among observers about how many carriers the PLA will need to give backing to Beijing’s global ambitions and protect its interest overseas. Some suggest six carrier strike groups in the future, with the fourth one to be nuclear-powered.

The US, by comparison, currently boasts a total of 11 nuclear carriers, with two more under construction and two being planned.

Read more:

Beijing says Liaoning is now a ‘combat carrier’

Choppy waters as carrier nears home stretch

Third PLA carrier taking shape in Shanghai