02:35 GMT08 May 2021
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    With its flight deck and command island yet to be installed, it seems increasingly unlikely China’s Type 003 aircraft carrier will be launched this year. However, the supporting technologies, including a new generation of carrier-based aircraft, are all well underway in their development.

    New high-definition satellite photos of the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai have given observers their best estimates yet on the forthcoming Type 003 aircraft carrier’s dimensions. The warship is bigger than expected, being roughly comparable to the US Navy’s newest carriers.

    Taken on March 28 by a South Korean Kompsat imaging satellite and obtained by Shadowbreak International, the photo is a refreshing break from months of blurry photos of the shipyard snapped by passers-by.

    According to Naval News, the sharp image and the ship’s continued manufacturing progress make calculating its dimensions easier than it has been, producing an estimated waterline length of 300 meters (985 feet). That’s roughly the same size as the 297-meter estimate made by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank last summer.

    That would make the Type 003 about 30 meters longer at the waterline than China’s predecessor carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, which are about 270 meters, and closer to the length of the US Navy’s USS Gerald R. Ford, which is 317 meters at the waterline.

    However, the waterline length isn’t the final size of the ship, since on most carriers the flight deck extends out a significant distance in every direction. According to Naval News, the interior modules of the Type 003, including the hangars and engine room, will likely soon be finished enough to begin installing the flight deck, meaning its final shape will soon begin to become visible.

    New Carrier, New Tech

    While the Type 003 ultimately won’t be as big as the 100,000-ton Ford-class carriers, likely weighing in at more than 85,000 tons fully loaded, it will still be significantly larger than the Liaoning and Shandong, and will carry a slew of new technologies making it significantly more dangerous. 

    That includes, most importantly, an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) like the Ford has but unlike the prior carriers’ bow ramps. The EMALS will allow the Type 003 to launch heavier aircraft, like the KJ-600 airborne early warning aircraft, and fighter jets with heavy weapons and fuel loads, which presently limit the capabilities of Liaoning’s and Shandong’s big J-15 “Flying Shark'' fighters.

    Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, the maker of the J-15, is also likely working on another carrier-based fighter for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Since at least July of 2020, Shenyang has been working with the Chinese Aeronautical Establishment design bureau to develop a “new type of aircraft” for naval use, saying last month it was doubling down on research and testing in 2021. Officially released photos have given credence to the longstanding theory that a derivative of Shenyang’s FC-31 Gyrfalcon test aircraft, a stealth fighter comparable to the US Navy’s F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, will be the end product.

    In this undated photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a carrier-borne J-15 fighter jet lands on China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning
    © AP Photo / Xinhua, Zha Chunming
    In this undated photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a carrier-borne J-15 fighter jet lands on China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning
    However, the Type 003 won’t be nuclear-powered, like US carriers are, which will limit its ability to stay at sea for long periods without refueling. It also leaves open the question of how the warship will generate the huge amounts of electricity needed to operate the electromagnets on the aircraft catapults. It seems likely the Type 003 will be given several of the new 20-megawatt steam turbo generators unveiled last July.

    Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, told the Global Times that the new generators were powerful enough to provide both propulsion and electrical needs, making possible an integrated electric propulsion system like that used on the futuristic USS Zumwalt destroyer. He noted that four of the generators would be enough to power the 13,000-ton Type 055 cruiser.

    The proposed Type 076 assault carrier would also use an EMALS catapult for launching fixed-wing drones. Budgetary projections for the 14th five-year plan include development of the novel warship.

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    USS Ford, China, shipyard, aircraft carrier, Type 002
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