Dry dock number 4 at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, where China's Type 003 aircraft carrier has been under construction since 2018, has been flooded, the latest satellite imagery from Planet Labs shows.
The development, along with the appearance of political banners and flags on the incomplete warship, suggests that it could be launched soon.
Earlier this month, China delayed the launch of the carrier due to unknown reasons. It was likely on 3 June, coinciding with the ancient Dragon Boat Festival and the 157th anniversary of the founding of Jiangnan Shipyard.
The dry dock at Jiangnan Shipyard has been cleared in recent weeks, opening a path for the aircraft carrier to enter the Yangtze River.
China's largest aircraft carrier
Type 003 is China's second indigenous aircraft carrier. It is not only larger than its predecessors but also represents a major technological leap for China and will significantly upgrade the power projection capabilities of the PLAN, now the largest Navy in the world in terms of the number of vessels.
Among other upgrades over older Chinese carriers, Type 003 has a flat-top flight deck equipped with a catapult assisted take off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) system to operate aircraft. CATOBAR is expensive and complex, but it offers a significant advantage over STOBAR — the ability to launch aircraft at maximum take off weight and a full payload.
CATOBAR is expensive and complex, but it offers a significant advantage over STOBAR — the ability to launch aircraft at maximum take off weight and a full payload. STOBAR is efficient only with aircraft having a high thrust-to-weight ratio, limiting an aircraft's take off weight in many cases. This, in turn, could limit the weaponry on board the fighter or the fuel it can carry, thereby reducing its range and loitering time and degrading its strike capabilities.
Recent developments also suggest that a derivative of China's FC-31 stealth fighter could be its next carrier fighter. A mockup of the fighter was recently spotted at the country's land-based carrier test facility in Wuhan, where it was positioned on a full-size mock carrier along with mockups of J-15 fighters.
The 65,000 tonne warship could be launched by China in the coming days or weeks, but it is still years away from being an operational carrier. After the launch, the vessel will be outfitted with weapon systems and sensors and undergo extensive testing, which will take years.
In 2020, an unclassified report from the Office of Naval Intelligence of the US Navy said the Chinese aircraft carrier could be commissioned as early as 2024. However, due to some delays in the launch of the carrier, this assessment may no longer hold true.
China currently has two aircraft carriers
China has been on an aircraft carrier-building spree over the last decade. Just ten years ago, it did not have any carriers. China's first carrier, built from the refitted hull of an old Soviet-era vessel, entered service in 2012. In 2019, China commissioned its first indigenous aircraft carrier, a larger and slightly improved copy of its first carrier.
In comparison, India started building its first indigenous aircraft carrier, Vikrant, in 2009. After years of delay, the warship will be commissioned into the Indian Navy on 15 August this year.
Over the next decade, China plans to build a fleet of nuclear-powered supercarriers like those operated by the US Navy. With such carriers, the PLAN will be able to project power in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, far away from the East and South China seas.
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