High-resolution satellite images show that the construction of China’s first full-sized aircraft carrier is progressing steadily in what has been billed as the country’s future ‘warship factory’.
The vessel will be Beijing’s third aircraft carrier which is expected to be launched in 2021.
Also captured by the pictures are expansive infrastructure work that suggests the ship will be the first of several large vessels produced at the site by the Yangtze River, according to analysts.
The images of Jiangnan Shipyard outside Shanghai were taken last month and released by a US think tank.
Experts have come to the conclusions after comparing the satellite photos with those they obtained in April and September last year.
Chinese state-run media including Xinhua and Global Times reported last year that the country was building a third aircraft carrier known as Type 002 and that it could be launched in 2021.
Noting a series of pre-fabricated sections, bulkheads and other components stacked nearby, analysts from Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) say the hull of the vessel should be finished within 12 months, after which it is likely to be moved to a newly created harbour and wharf before being fitted out.
Jiangnan shipyard is one of the most important naval shipbuilding plants in China and its name means ‘south of the Yangtze River’. It’s located on Changxing Island in Shanghai at the mouth of the Yangtze.
The vast harbour is nearly complete and will include a wharf nearly one kilometre (0.6 miles) long and large buildings for manufacturing ship components, it is believed.
Much of the harbour area appeared to be abandoned farmland just a year ago, according to earlier images CSIS analysed.
It dwarfs an existing harbour nearby, where destroyers and other warships are docked.
‘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,’ said CSIS analyst Dr. Matthew Funaiole.
‘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.’
Singapore-based military analyst Collin Koh said the modern, purpose-built facility on a sparsely populated island in the Yangtze may provide better security than the congested shipyards of Dalian in northern China, which revamped the country’s first aircraft carrier and built its second one.
The plant could also help deepen co-operation between commercial and military shipbuilders.
The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies noted this year that China’s military shipyards were focusing increasingly on larger surface warships, ‘adding to the sense that Chinese naval-capability development may be entering a new phase’.
China’s navy has recently launched four large Type 055 cruisers and its first large helicopter carrier, known as the Type 075.
China’s military has not formally announced the plans for the third carrier.
The Pentagon said it in its annual survey of China’s military modernisation, published in May, that work on the third carrier had begun.
China’s Ministry of Defence did not respond to questions.
Funaiole said the latest images appeared to confirm the earlier photos, which suggested the latest carrier would be somewhat smaller the 100,000-tonne ‘supercarriers’ operated by the US but larger than France’s 42,500-tonne Charles de Gaulle.
Asian and Western militaries are tracking developments closely. They say this carrier would represent a vital step in China’s ambitions to create a far-ranging navy that can project power around the world to serve Beijing’s expanding global interests.
It is expected to be China’s first carrier with a flat deck and catapult launch system, allowing the use of a wider range of aircraft and more heavily armed fighter jets.
China’s first two carriers, which it has dubbed Type 001-class, are relatively small, accommodating only up to 25 aircraft that are launched from ramps built onto their decks. US carriers routinely deploy with nearly four times the number of aircraft.
Its first carrier, the Liaoning, was a Soviet-era Ukrainian ship bought second-hand in 1998 and re-fitted in China. A second carrier based on that design was built by Chinese engineers and launched in 2017. It is coded Type 001A and yet to be named.
Type 001A has been undergoing sea trials from its base in northern Dalian and is not expected to enter service until 2020.
Foreign military attaches and security analysts say the Type 001 ships are expected to essentially serve as training platforms for what they believe will be fleet of up to six operational carriers by 2030.
They say the construction and deployment of aircraft carriers is considered exceptionally difficult to master. Protecting such a large and vital surface target with escort ships, submarines and aircraft is a core part of the problem.
Chinese state media said earlier this year that the Liaoning ‘is starting to play a combat role following recent modifications and intensive training exercises’.
‘The PLA navy is not saying much in detail about its plans now, but we can see from their building works that their ambitions are vast,’ said one Asian military attache, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
‘And they will get there,’ the insider added.
Koh, a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the new Jiangnan facilities looked permanent and reflected China’s long-held ambitions to bulk up its fleet with more carriers and other large vessels.
‘We are talking about infrastructure being built quickly and on a large scale. It could well be the start of a “factory”, if you like, for carriers and other very large vessels,’ he said.
This article has been adapted from its original source.