China's first domestically built aircraft carrier, the Type 002, is seen during its launch ceremony in Dalian in May. The second made-in-China carrier will have a similar steam powered propulsion system. Photo: Reuters / Stringer
China's first locally built aircraft carrier, Type 001A, is seen at its launch in Dalian in May 2018. The second made-in-China carrier will have a similar steam-powered propulsion system. Photo: Reuters

China’s third aircraft carrier, known only as the Type 002, is now taking shape at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard at a pace much faster than previously estimated.

Satellite images viewed by military observers show rain shelters have been erected above at least two slipways on the south shore of Shanghai’s Changxing island where the shipyard is located, and two new gantry cranes are also visible. All of these did not exist a year ago.

The size of the rain shelters suggests that the vessel, with key parts of its hull being built on different platforms, will dwarf the first Chinese-built carrier, known only as Type 001A, which underwent sea trials last year.

The speed from conception of the more advanced Type 002 to its upcoming keel-laying has prompted some pundits to suggest the new carrier could be put to sea for the first time around 2023.

Previous reports by the Kanwa Defense Review claim that Type 002 will sport a flat-top design equipped with steam catapults, so fighter jets will no longer be ejected from a ski-jump ramp like those on the Liaoning and Type 001A. But the new ship will still be conventionally powered.

Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard is now a hive of activity with new slipways and cranes added for the construction of future carriers. Photo: Google Maps
Destroyers are also seen at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard. Photo: Google Maps

Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army has quietly boosted its fleet of destroyers on par with the US Navy’s Aegisclass warships to at least 28, according to a rough calculation based on reports by Chinese papers and satellite photos.

Four strike groups?

That number suggests that the PLA may ultimately maintain four carrier strike groups by the end of 2020s. That means Beijing could be looking at two to three similar flat-tops in Shanghai and Dalian one after another in the following years, in an expansion spree to rival the United States’ naval prowess in the Western Pacific.

Beijing needs to rev up construction and commissioning of newer carriers, as by that time the Liaoning – a refurbished Soviet vessel built in the 1980s – may be obsolete and facing retirement.

Zhu Yingfu, chief designer of the Liaoning, said in a speech in April 2018 that although the US had 11 carriers, it was likely that China would need far fewer.

“The US says it needs 10 carriers. We may not need that many, but there should be at least three. If conditions permit, there should be four or five,” he said.

If Beijing manages to make steady headway in the next decade towards its ambitious carrier-building goal for a “blue water” navy, then the US may no longer rule the roost in the region. And that may bode ill for Taiwan.

Beijing has also made no secret of its plan to launch nuclear carriers. Its first nuclear-powered vessel is expected to join the navy by about 2030 at the latest. That would ultimately bring the total number of Chinese carriers to six, according to local military experts.

The US Navy, with its considerable combat experience and global reach, would still be superior in 10 years, but the size of the Chinese fleet would be larger and the gap in technology and training would also have been reduced.

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