• Credit: Planet Inc
    Credit: Planet Inc

China’s third and largest aircraft carrier to date is rapidly approaching its launch ceremony, with latest satellite imagery showing construction work on the ship has reached an advanced stage.

A satellite photo taken on 19th of April and provided to ADM by Planet Inc shows that work is continuing on the flight deck on the ship as it remains in a drydock at a shipyard at Shanghai.

The two aircraft elevators also appear to have been installed, although weather shelters are still present over the ship’s three catapult tracks, suggesting these are yet to be completed although the shelters appear to be smaller ones with triangular roofs as opposed to the taller, square shelters seen on previous satellite images up to the 23rd of March.

The as-yet unnamed carrier will likely be launched sometime this year to continue its fitting out at the Jiangnan-Changxing shipyard in Shanghai where its being built, with rumours suggesting this will happen in early June.

The aircraft carrier, which is known as the Type 003, has a flight deck that measures some 316 metres (1037 feet) long and is believed to have a displacement of around 100,000 tons when complete.

The dimensions of the Type 003 is roughly the same as the U.S. Navy’s already-decommissioned Kitty Hawk class carriers although it is longer that China’s two preceding carriers, the Liaoning and Shandong.

These are a refurbished ex-Soviet Kuznetsov-class vessel that entered service in 2012 and an indigenous, modified Kuznetsov design commissioned in 2017 respectively, both of which are some 305 metres (997 feet) in length and displace around 65,000-70,000 tons.

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has so far been using the Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark as its main carrier fighter. This is a Chinese version of the Sukhoi Su-33 carrierborne Flanker, which China developed as its mainstay combat aircraft for its carriers.

It is also developing a twin-seat Electronic Attack version of the J-15, meaning that the type will continue to serve on PLAN carrier for the foreseeable future.

However, there are increasing signs it is about to deploy a version of the Shenyang FC-31 stealth fighter as its next generation carrierborne fighter.

A satellite photo on Google Earth of the PLAN’s carrier aircraft training airbase at Huludao in Liaoning Province, northern China taken in March shows a pair FC-31s on the tarmac. The type was originally conceived for the export market but found no takers and subsequently underwent a significant redesign for PLAN use.

The two aircraft were parked on a set of painted deck markings along with four J-15s. The markings are approximately 235 metres (771 feet) long and similar in length to the angled deck of the Type 003, while a nearby temporary structure is believed to represent the carrier’s bridge.

The satellite photo shows a further 19 J-15s and 12 Guizhou JL-9/JL-9G jet trainers at the base, with more believed to be parked underneath the numerous weather shelters. China has built or in the process of building the fourth batch of production J-15s, with each batch numbering around 24 aircraft.

Some of these are based at Lingshui on the southern Chinese island of Hainan on the fringes of the disputed South China Sea as the Shandong’s air wing. The carrier has been assigned to the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet based at nearby Yulin, where a drydock large enough for an aircraft carrier is being built to support its operations.

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