Tracking China’s Third Aircraft Carrier

Tracking China’s Third Aircraft Carrier
Tracking China’s Third Aircraft Carrier
Tracking China’s Third Aircraft Carrier Top

    China is making steady progress in constructing what is believed to be its third aircraft carrier.1 Commercial satellite imagery collected on August 18, 2020, shows significant developments in the construction of the vessel and additional improvements to the infrastructure at Jiangnan Shipyard.

    ChinaPower has tracked military developments at Jiangnan Shipyard since late 2018, and originally identified the presumed build site of the third carrier in May 2019. Recent satellite imagery shows that construction of the carrier has moved to a secondary location at Jiangnan. While this relocation took place between May 24 and June 2, it was not until mid-August that satellite imagery provided a clear view of the vessel at its new location. For the first time since construction began, the vessel’s hull blocks are laid out in order of construction and uncovered by environmental shelters, allowing the clearest view yet of the carrier.

    Click image to enlarge

    There are nine hull blocks spaced out on the dry dock. The blocks stretch roughly 351 meters from bow to stern (including the spaces between them). Excluding these spaces, the vessel’s visible hull blocks total roughly 297 meters in length. The longest block, which comprises the stern, is about 49 meters in length. In terms of width, the widest hull blocks measure approximately 40 meters.

    The currently visible hull blocks generally reflect the size of the vessel at its waterline. As work on the carrier progresses, additional blocks will be placed on top of the existing ones. The vessel’s superstructure, including the flight deck and island, will then be placed on top of these blocks.2 This will significantly increase the vessel’s overall footprint and lend it a more easily recognizable appearance.

    The measurements of the nine hull blocks are generally consistent with what is expected for China’s third carrier. At roughly 297 meters, the combined length of the ship’s visible components is approaching the overall length of China’s first two aircraft carriers, the Liaoning (304.5 meters) and the Shandong (315 meters).

    As construction continues, we expect the vessel to lengthen by several meters with the addition of the flight deck. The overall length of the USS Gerald R. Ford, for example, is nearly 16 meters longer than its waterline length. At the current stage, however, it is not yet possible to confirm the final length of China’s third carrier.

    Future imagery should uncover these and other details. For instance, imagery may reveal the type of aircraft launch system the third carrier will employ. Various unofficial reports speculate that, unlike its predecessors, the third carrier will feature an electromagnetic catapult launch system. It is not yet possible to assess whether this is accurate, but unofficial sources suggest that China has made significant headway in developing this technology.

    Chinese Aircraft Carrier Comparison
    Shandong Third carrier
    Design Chinese Chinese
    Length 315m
    Beam 75m
    Waterline Beam 35m 40m (estimated)
    Launch Type STOBAR CATOBAR
    Displacement 66,000 – 70,000 tons 80,000 – 85,000 tons (estimated)
    Propulsion Conventional Conventional
    Shipyard of Origin Dalian Jiangnan
    Sources:Various
    Figures for the third carrier are likely to change as more information becomes available.

    In addition to providing information on the status of the third carrier, recent developments have given new insight into China’s process for constructing aircraft carriers at Jiangnan. The early stages of the ship’s construction were primarily localized within a recent expansion of Jiangnan, located in the southeastern portion of the shipyard.3 This area includes fabrication and assembly facilities, as well as a large basin that is nearly three times larger than the older basin situated nearby. These new facilities appear purpose-built for constructing large naval vessels.

    We originally assessed that the construction and fitting out of the carrier was likely to be localized in this newer section of the shipyard. However, the relocation of the carrier has shown that the construction process spans much of Jiangnan. The relocation of the carrier blocks probably occurred via a utility road on large transporter vehicles. The blocks were then placed in a temporary location adjacent to the dry dock and then moved into the dry dock by a large gantry crane. Notably, the area around the dry dock (where the carrier is now situated) has been used in the construction of several large commercial craft, including very large crude carriers (VLCC), large liquified natural gas (LNG) carriers, and very large ore carriers – some of the largest seafaring vessels in the world.

    Assembly of the hull is expected to take place over the next several months. Once the hull and superstructure are assembled, the dry dock will be flooded and the carrier will enter the water. The carrier is likely to then move to another location for fitting out. The vessel may be moored at the large T-shaped piers that jut out into the Yangtze River, or it could be placed in the new basin adjacent to where many of the vessel’s initial blocks were fabricated. The US Department of Defense notes that China expects to enter the third carrier into service by 2023.

    This basin has seen significant improvements since ChinaPower last analyzed the shipyard. Work on dredging and reinforcing the basin’s bottom appears to be mostly finished. On the southern wall of the basin, a dock measuring 930 meters has been built, and a very large ore carrier and large floating drydock can be seen moored there in the August 18 imagery. On the northern side the basin, another dock is under construction that (when completed) will measure at least 350 meters in length. These docks will likely be used for mooring and fitting out large vessels – perhaps including the third carrier or future planned carriers.

    There have also been other infrastructure improvements to the shipyard. Over the last year, the assembly facility where the carrier was initially being built has increased in size by roughly 30,000 square meters, which provides additional space for assembling large vessel components. ChinaPower


    Previous Updates

    The below timeline summarizes key developments at Jiangnan Shipyard. For more details, read our previous satellite imagery analysis by expanding the sections below. To learn more about China’s aircraft carrier program, see our features on China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and China’s first domestically-built carrier. For more updates, follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our podcast.

    Timeline of Key Developments
    Time Period Description
    Mid-2018 Rumors surface that construction of China’s third aircraft carrier was underway.
    November 2018 China’s official news agency Xinhua acknowledges the existence of the third carrier.
    April 2019 Satellite imagery shows evidence that China is constructing the third carrier in newly built facilities at Jiangnan Shipyard.
    Late 2019 – Early 2020 Progress continues, with rumors suggesting minor pauses in work resulting from Covid-19 and China’s Lunar New Year holiday.
    May/June 2020 Components of the third carrier are moved from their original location to a second location at Jiangnan Shipyard.
    July/August 2020 The carrier’s hull components are moved into a dry dock for the next stage of construction. Additional infrastructure improvements are made to the new assembly facility.

    October 2019

    In our October 2019 analysis, commercial satellite imagery revealed significant developments at Jiangnan. Imagery from September 18 showed incremental progress on the vessel’s construction and major enhancements to the surrounding infrastructure.

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    At that time, the vessel remained in the early stages of construction. Although environmental shelters hid much of the ongoing activity, portions of the vessel’s hull were visible. The imagery confirmed earlier estimates that the water-level beam of the hull will measure approximately 40 meters in length. What appeared to be the vessel’s stern was also partially visible near the launching way. The stern appeared unfinished and we estimated that further additions would likely make the vessel’s rear more rounded. What was exposed of the ship’s bow tapered from a width of 38 meters to 34 meters.

    A second tower crane had been added to the assembly facility, suggesting that construction was progressing steadily. These tower cranes were likely being used to lower prefabricated components into the hull. While they were partially obscured by a gantry crane in the satellite imagery, low-altitude imagery corroborated the presence of the new tower crane.

    Prefabricated ship components could be seen awaiting assembly near the vessel’s hull and on the roads adjacent to the assembly facility. These components included internal deck sections measuring approximately 12 meters by 27 meters in size, which would in time be positioned within the hull. There were also several bulkheads, each measuring approximately 39 meters in length, which would be affixed to different portions of the ship. Additionally, there were two tapered hull components (approximately 38 meters in length) that could be used to form part of the v-shaped portion of the bow.

    Given the status and pace of construction at that point, we estimated that hull construction was likely to continue for approximately the next 12 months. We assessed that once the hull is completed, internal components and deck sections would be added. This would be followed by the addition of the vessel’s superstructure (the features that appear above the main deck), such as the island.

    Significant progress had been made on the newly constructed basin where we (at the time) expected the vessel to be outfitted. Work had begun on what appeared to be an approximately 940-meter-long dock on the eastern side of the basin. A new seawall was being added across from the dock, where the existing flood control system and surrounding sediment were waiting to be removed. We concluded that, once completed, the new basin would be nearly three times larger than the existing floodable basin situated within the military shipyard.

    The presence of a dredger and a barge hauling dredged material indicated that efforts to deepen and clear out the basin were ongoing. Two crane barges could also be seen driving piles into the basin floor to improve the basin’s stability. The reinforcement of the basin floor suggested that the area was being prepared for berthing and fitting-out large vessels.

    The upgrades to the new basin adjacent to the assembly facility suggested that (once launched) the third carrier will be outfitted in the basin. However, we noted that it would not be unreasonable for the vessel to be moved elsewhere within Jiangnan Shipyard as progress continued.

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    May 2019

    Commercial satellite imagery collected on April 17, 2019 showed significant new activity since ChinaPower first analyzed Jiangnan Shipyard in late 2018. At the new assembly facility to the southeast of the existing shipyard, there was evidence of a large vessel being assembled and a floodable basin being constructed. ChinaPower concluded that the large vessel was consistent with what is expected for the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) third aircraft carrier.

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    What appeared to be the bow and main hull sections of the vessel were visible through the clouds and mist. The bow section was assessed to measure approximately 22.5 meters long and taper from a width of approximately 34 meters down to approximately 30 meters.

    The haze in the image and the image’s resolution made it difficult to determine if the bow section was resting on a construction platform or if the reddish sections extending forward and aft of the partially assembled section were part of the bow itself. If measured to include these components, the hull section had an overall length of approximately 48 meters.

    The main hull section was partially hidden by both mist and rail-mounted environmental shelters, making it difficult to accurately measure its length at this time. The main hull section, however, appeared to be approximately 40 meters wide.

    Also visible at the new assembly facility were several prefabricated sections. These sections were laid out on the ground adjacent to the hull assembly and distributed on the surrounding road network that leads to the new assembly facility to the south and southeast. Since ChinaPower first analyzed the area, construction of a new tower crane had also begun.

    Immediately south of the new assembly facility is a semi-flooded area, which at that time appeared to be in the process of being converted to a floodable ship basin. Construction of what is likely a seawall on the east side of this area has been ongoing since late 2018. A seawall, or a launching channel, is a necessity for any vessels being constructed at the new assembly facility. At that time, there was no access to the river to launch vessels. It is unclear if the shipyard’s road network could support the load of transporting large components to the main shipyard.

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    December 2018

    When ChinaPower first analyzed imagery of Jiangnan Shipyard in December 2018, details regarding China’s third carrier were extremely limited. It was not until November 27, 2018 that the existence of the third carrier was officially confirmed by China’s official news agency, Xinhua. At that time, various unofficial reports speculated that the carrier was either being built within the existing commercial shipyard or at the new assembly facility under construction to the southeast of the military shipyard.

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    Satellite imagery from late 2018 provided limited insight. This imagery did show that the new fabrication/assembly facility was still under construction and that the adjacent potential wet basin was not yet suitable for launching vessels, as it had not been dredged and lacked a connection to the Yangtze River. Imagery also showed some unidentified construction along the south bank of the probable wet basin.

    Jiangnan Shipyard
    Jiangnan Shipyard plays a vital role in the PLAN’s modernization. Learn more about the shipyard’s infrastructure and the ongoing naval activity at Jiangnan.

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    1. Some sources have referred to the vessel as the Type 002, while others call it the Type 003. To avoid confusion, we have opted to simply refer to it as China’s third aircraft carrier.
    2. An aircraft carrier’s island contains the command center for flight deck operations, as well as operations for the entire vessel.
    3. Construction of the new portion of the shipyard primarily took place prior to 2020, but additional infrastructure improvements are ongoing.