The size of China’s third aircraft carrier, which is taking shape in Shanghai, will be roughly on par with the US Navy’s decommissioned Kitty Hawk. And it may also sport a similar flat top, plus flight deck layout.

The carrier, known only as Type 002, is still in an early stage of construction at the Jiangnan Shipyard near the Yangtze River estuary in Shanghai.

Satellite images taken last month show work on the vessel has got off to a speedy start – no less than three sections of her hull are clearly visible on newly built slipways with gigantic gantry cranes looming above, all of which were nonexistent in 2017.

More prefabricated components will appear on the dry dock and floodable ship basins before being welded or bolted together as workers with the state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corp (CSIC) make further headway.

A satellite image shows the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai is now a hive of activity. Sections of the future carrier can be seen on slipways and ship basins. Photo: Center for Strategic and International Studies

The People’s Liberation Army’s “grade-skipping” in building carriers – by skipping smaller vessels of 30,000 tons or less – is evident amid Beijing’s desire to build up its naval prowess to project power in nearby seas.

The vessel in Shanghai will sail into the same league as the conventionally-powered US supercarrier Kitty Hawk, dwarfing its two sister carriers – the Soviet-built Liaoning and its lookalike Type 001A, which may enter service later this year.

Veteran military observer Andrei Chang noted in the May issue of the Kanwa Defense Review that the Type 002 carrier could come close to the 83,000-ton Kitty Hawk – much bigger than the Liaoning, whose full displacement was 67,500 tons.

After studying a computer-generated rendering of PLA carrier groups posted by the China Shipbuilding Industry Corp on its Weibo account, Chang noted that the future carrier could be equipped with up to three catapults to launch more warplanes into combat: two on its bow for the J-15 shipborne fighter and one on its angled flight deck for early warning planes like the KJ-600. The Kitty Hawk, by comparison, had only two catapults.

A file photo shows the now decommissioned US carrier Kitty Hawk sailing in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor during a port call in 2009. Photo: Reuters
CSIC posted on its Weibo account in June 2018 what was believed to be the design of the Type 002 carrier (center) currently being built in Shanghai. Photo: Weibo
Another rendering of the Type 002 carrier by military enthusiasts. Photo: Weibo

Yet the hulking J-15 – which will make up the bulk of the PLA’s shipborne fighter fleet for the better part of the next decade – means that the Type 002 will carry less warplanes than the Kitty Hawk did, Chang said, with some 48 J-15s in two squadrons, plus a dozen helicopters and early warning planes.

The US carrier could haul more than 80 aircraft, mostly the smaller, more nimble F/A-18 Hornet and F-14 Tomcat supersonic fighters.

The next question about the Type 002 is the kind of catapult that will be installed, whether it has conventional steam-powered launch pads or the cutting-edge electromagnetic catapults that the US Navy has just started to trial on its newest flat-top, the Gerald R. Ford.

Reports by Chinese papers hint that both systems are being tested on mock carrier decks at a PLA pilot training base in northeastern Liaoning province.

But Chang said the propulsion system of the future carrier could turn out to be a drag, and the PLA might just opt for steam catapults as a stop-gap measure when the outmoded steam turbines and boilers, likely built with technology transfer from Ukraine, could barely propel the colossal hull at top speeds, let alone powering electromagnetic pads that are electricity guzzlers.

Also, due to power constraints, the Type 002 may need to shed its armament and aircraft inventory to reduce weight to sail faster for deployment at high seas. But in such a scenario, its combat readiness, in particular anti-ship and air-defense capabilities, could be questionable.

The Type 002 may formally enter service with the PLA by 2028.

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