Satellite images show China building a big aircraft carrier believed to be its first modern flattop

Chinese navy warships and fighter jets during a military display in the South China Sea.

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Chinese navy warships and fighter jets during a military display in the South China Sea.
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Reuters

  • Satellites images obtained and analyzed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies show China’s third aircraft carrier, likely be its first modern flattop, under construction at Jiangnan Shipyard.
  • CSIS, like the Pentagon, believes the new carrier will be much larger than its predecessors and include a catapult aircraft launch system.
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The construction of a new, larger aircraft carrier – likely be China’s first modern flattop – can be seen in recent satellite images of Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai.

While China has not officially acknowledged work on a new aircraft carrier, Chinese state media first confirmed rumors of a “new-generation carrier” in November. The US Department of Defense reported last week that this new carrier is indeed under construction.

Read more: China has a 3rd aircraft carrier in the works, and it could be a really big deal, Pentagon reveals

Satellite images obtained and analyzed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies provide additional confirmation, as well as the first apparent view of the new carrier.


What observers suspect is China’s third carrier can be seen clearly taking shape at Jiangnan Shipyard.

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China’s third aircraft carrier under construction at Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai.
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CSIS/ChinaPower/Maxar Technologies 2019

“The construction of a third aircraft carrier – the Type 002 – appears to be underway at China’s Jiangnan Shipyard,” CSIS reported. “Commercial satellite imagery collected on April 17, 2019 shows significant new activity.”

The Washington, DC, think tank observed evidence of a very large vessel being constructed at a new assembly facility. The bow and main hull are visible in the photos. “While details regarding the Type 002 are limited, what is observable at Jiangnan is consistent with what is expected for the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s third aircraft carrier,” CSIS explained.


China only has one active aircraft carrier right now, but another is expected to join the fleet soon.

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Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning during an exercise in the western Pacific Ocean, April 18, 2018.
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Stringer via Reuters

China has one carrier – the Type 001 Liaoning – in service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Formerly a rusting, unfinished Soviet heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser, the Liaoning is now the flagship of the Chinese navy.

China is close to fielding its second aircraft carrier – the Type 001A, the country’s first domestically produced carrier.

The ship, based on the Liaoning, recently completed its fifth sea trial, and the Pentagon expects this vessel will “likely join the fleet by the end of 2019.”


The new third carrier is expected to be a much more capable improvement over its two predecessors.

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Reuters

China’s first and second carriers are conventionally powered ships with ski jump-assisted short take-off-but-arrested-recovery (STOBAR) launch systems, which are less effective than steam- or electromagnetically powered catapult-assisted-takeoff-but-arrested-recovery (CATOBAR) launch systems.

The third carrier is expected to be significantly larger than the first two carriers (but still smaller than US carriers) and have a CATOBAR launch system. “This design will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations,” the Department of Defense concluded.


The third carrier could be a major achievement for the Chinese navy.

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J-15 fighters take off from the Liaoning aircraft carrier during a drill in the South China Sea.
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REUTERS/Stringer

“If the third carrier does have some catapult-assisted launch system, that will be a huge step forward for China,” Matthew Funaiole, a fellow with the China Power Project at CSIS, previously told Business Insider.

Read more: China’s aircraft carriers have a boatload of glaring weaknesses – but the next carrier could be a ‘huge step forward’

“They would very quickly have moved closer to what current technology is. That’s something that very few countries can do. That would put China in a very elite status,” Funaiole said.

China’s third carrier is expected to join the fleet in about 2022.