China moved one step closer to becoming a legitimate global superpower, as its aircraft carrier fleet passed several important milestones in recent months, The National Interest reported.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy operates or is building three flattops, according to Rick Joe, in a report for The Diplomat, and it will only get stronger.

CV-16 Liaoning is a former Ukrainian vessel that China rebuilt and commissioned in 2011. The 60,000-ton-displacement vessel launches its J-15 fighters by way of a bow ramp.

“CV-16 returned to Dalian shipyard in mid 2018 for maintenance and refit, where the island structure was altered and presumably additional upgrades were made internally,” Joe wrote.

And more recentlyLiaoning and an escort force including a 901 comprehensive resupply ship passed through the first island chain into the western Pacific, presumably for a training deployment.

It will likely be another few years yet until Liaoning will have to return to a shipyard for a major overhaul, the report said.

Meanwhile, Liaoning’s sister vessel, the Type 002 Shandong, is nearing completion. “Construction of aircraft carrier 002 at Dalian shipyard was first photographically confirmed in early 2015,” Joe wrote.

The ship was launched in April 2017, and began sea trials one year later in April 2018. Recent pictures of 002 from May this year have revealed tire marks on the landing strip, indicating that aviation trials with fixed-wing aircraft (J-15s) have begun. Carrier 002 is expected to be commissioned by the end of 2019.

Type 002 is a ski jump-equipped carrier derived from the design of CV-16 Liaoning. The ship enjoys various modifications from Liaoning, such as a significantly redesigned island and overall smaller island footprint, as well as redesigned, larger weapons elevators, the report said.

Similar to Liaoning, 002 is only capable of accommodating ski jump-launched J-15 fighters and helicopters at this time. It is unknown if future catapult compatible fighters will be designed to operate from ski jump carriers like 002 and Liaoning.

Carrier 002 can be thought of as another “bridging carrier” toward the PLAN’s ultimate and preferred carrier configuration of fielding large catapult-equipped vessels instead.

The Type 003 carrier under construction in Shanghai could be the first truly modern carrier in PLAN service. Its catapults could allow it to embark a wide array of large, sophisticated aircraft including drones, radar planes and new fighters.

The construction of 003 had been rumored to be somewhat unique, whereby the ship’s modules would first be assembled at a staging area into “super blocks” of very large and complete hull sections.

Those “super blocks” would then be transported by water to a drydock elsewhere in the shipyard for final assembly of the super blocks and assembly of additional flight deck sponsons and topside modules such as the island. Finally, the ship would be launched from drydock for fitting out, the report said.

China’s first two flattops probably won’t venture too far from home, the US Defense Intelligence Agency predicted.

“The primary purpose of this first domestic aircraft carrier will be to serve a regional defense mis­sion,” the intelligence agency claimed in a January 2019 report. “Beijing probably also will use the carrier to project power throughout the South China Sea and possibly into the Indian Ocean.”

But that could change as China’s carrier fleet expands. The Chinese navy could possess as many as six aircraft carriers by the mid-2030s, experts told state media.