KEY POINTS

  •  Type 003 vessel is likely to be launched in three to six months
  • The carrier's size is close to that of the US Kitty Hawk class
  • It is equipped with four catapult-assisted launch channels

China is all set to launch its third aircraft carrier in early 2022, as satellite images show a significant change in the appearance of the Type 003 vessel. The images obtained by a U.S.-based think tank reveal the work on the carrier’s main external components is nearly complete.

The work on the Type 003 vessel began in 2016 and unlike the two other Chinese carriers, viz., the Liaoning and the Shandong, the third one will not be nuclear-powered. The carrier's size is close to that of the U.S. Kitty Hawk class, which had four catapult-assisted launch channels, reported The South China Morning Post.

In images provided by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Oct. 23, the vessel is seen in Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai.

"Sometime between September 18 and October 23, the two large openings in the vessel’s deck were sealed shut. These gaps allowed for large internal components, such as the engines and powerplants, to be inserted into the hull. Their closure suggests that the initial installation of major internal components has been completed," the report by CSIS added.

The work on the bow catapults is continuing. "The second bow catapult is not yet covered by environmental shelters, but it will be once installation and testing begin. Behind the two bow catapults, work is underway (underneath environmental shelters) on a third catapult on the ship’s port side," the report said.

It calls the inclusion of catapults on Type 003 as "a major leap forward for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy as Liaoning and Shandong rely on less advanced ski jump-style takeoff systems."

"Based on available information and observed progress at Jiangnan, the authors estimate that the Type 003 will launch in roughly three to six months," the CSIS report added.

Matthew Funaiole, a senior fellow at the CSIS's China Project, said the Type 003 would be the Chinese military's first foray into a modern aircraft carrier. "This is a pretty significant step forward," he said. "They've really committed to building out a carrier program, and they continue to push the boundaries of what they're able to do," Funaiole told CNN.

Though a US Congressional Research report in October said the Type 003 vessel may have a displacement of around 100,000 tons, comparable to a U.S. carrier of the same class, analysts believe it still lags behind its U.S. counterparts.

The fact that U.S. carriers have more catapults, a larger airway, and more elevators to allow for quicker deployment of aircraft gives them an edge.

Analysts also think the experience the U.S. possesses in operating aircraft carriers will come to its aid. "We've been at carrier operations for generations on generations and we have a number of different operators and engineers and technicians that have worked on them, that can pass that knowledge on to those who come after them," Funaiole told CNN.

He added that China has only operated aircraft carriers since 2012 and that the experience gap isn't "something that you can just jump forward."

china's aircraft carrier
China's first domestically developed aircraft carrier departs Dalian, Liaoning province, China, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer
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