The paper written by Vice Admiral (Ret.) Tokuhiro Ikeda, former Maritime Self-Defense Force Commandant Kure District, on March 17, 2021 analyzed satellite imagery of the Shanghai Jiangnan Shipyard as of October 25, 2020. This paper will discuss progress in the construction of the Type 003 aircraft carrier since then.
Image 1 March 10, 2021 Type 003 aircraft carrier under construction (Shanghai Jiangnan Shipyard)
Image 1 is a satellite imagery showing the vessel under construction as of March 10, 2021. The construction of the lower part of the ship’s hull was taking place at the dry dock. Calculations based on satellite imagery show that the vessel’s length in its present condition was 305 meters and width was 45 meters. Part of the cables and piping on the deck can also be observed from this image. It also shows the part of the deck under which the engines, generators, and other equipment will be installed.
Nine blocks of the upper deck are also seen placed on the side of the dock, most likely to be added to the hull on the dry dock.
Image 2 March 23, 2021 Type 003 aircraft carrier under construction (Shanghai Jiangnan Shipyard)
Image 3 April 26, 2021 Type 003 aircraft carrier under construction (Shanghai Jiangnan Shipyard)
Images 2 and 3 are satellite imageries from March 23 and April 26, 2021, respectively. The nine blocks on the side of the dock had been mounted in order on the hull, and as of April 26, all nine blocks can be seen to have been set up on the upper deck. This image also shows the ongoing piping work on the lower deck.
Image 4 May 7, 2021 Type 003 aircraft carrier under construction (Shanghai Jiangnan Shipyard)
All nine blocks that used to be on the side of the dock had been set up on the hull. It would appear that the piping work and installation of equipment were taking place inside the vessel.
As of May 7, 2021, two holes uncovered by the deck, each about 30 meters from the bow to the astern and about 25 meters width can be seen at the mid-section and rear of the deck. If this vessel has the same structure as the Russian navy’s aircraft carrier, it can be construed that the inner section that can be observed from these holes would be the engine room. The engines are expected to be installed here.
Image 5 July 12, 2021 Type 003 aircraft carrier under construction (Shanghai Jiangnan Shipyard)
Engine-related equipment and the laying of cables on the vessel can be observed from the imagery of July 12. Two rails thought to be catapult-related equipment can be seen on the front deck and another one on portside.
China is known to have manufactured experimental electromagnetic catapults and started tests in 2014 and the Type 003 is expected to be equipped with electromagnetic catapults. It is possible that the cables around the deck will be connected to generators, forced energy storage device, and linear motors.
Furthermore, the lower part of the island on starboard can be observed to be under construction.
Image 6 July 23, 2021 Type 003 aircraft carrier under construction (Shanghai Jiangnan Shipyard)
As of July 23, environmental shelters had been installed over around half astern side of the two uncovered sections on the deck. It is possible that equipment that must be hidden from satellite imaging was being installed in the engine room.
Image 7 Sept. 6, 2021 Type 003 aircraft carrier under construction (Shanghai Jiangnan Shipyard)
Image 8 Sept. 27, 2021 Type 003 aircraft carrier under construction (Shanghai Jiangnan Shipyard)
It can be seen from the Sept. 6 imagery that of the two catapults on the front deck, an environmental shelter was beginning to be set up over the linear structure on portside. In the Sept. 27 imagery, three-fourths of this linear structure was covered. It is reckoned that this was meant to avoid satellite imaging of related equipment when the linear motors were being installed, since this is one of the core technologies of electromagnetic catapults.
Also, the Sept. 27 imagery shows that the engines and other power systems had yet to be installed.
Image 9 Oct. 23, 2021 Type 003 aircraft carrier under construction (Shanghai Jiangnan Shipyard)
Image 10 Oct. 30, 2021 Type 003 aircraft carrier under construction (Shanghai Jiangnan Shipyard)
The Oct. 23 imagery reveals that the engine room was now covered and the deck in place. The engines must have been installed. In addition to the catapult equipment on portside of the front deck, an environment shelter had also been set up over another catapult on portside. Also, construction of the island on starboard had reached the upper part.
From the state of the construction work and the fact that blocks of another ship had been placed on the side of the dock, it is highly possible that the Type 003 carrier may be launched not later than early 2022.
Measurements from the Oct. 30 imagery of the nearly finished vessel show that the Type 003 is 318 meters long and 78 meters wide. While its length is some 20 meters shorter than the U.S. Navy’s Gerald R. Ford-class carrier’s 337 meters, it has the same width. There is analysis that the Type 003 will be capable of carrying aircraft comparable to the U.S. Navy’s top-of-the-line carriers.
However, although the Type 003 was expected to be equipped with four catapults, only three catapults can be seen from satellite imagery. Furthermore, compared to the Gerald R. Ford-class carrier’s three aircraft elevators (two on starboard and one on portside), Type 003 has only two, both on starboard. Since the difference in the number of catapults and elevators translates into difference in the efficiency of aircraft operations, it is reckoned that the Type 003’s aircraft operational capability is inferior to the U.S. Navy’s carriers.
There is also the question of carrier-based aircraft for Type 003. A media outlet affiliated with the U.S. Navy reported in 2016 the existence of the J-15 equipped with a catapult launch bar.  However, it has been reported that issues with the control system were found on the J-15s carried on “Liaoning” and “Shandong” so production of this aircraft had been terminated. There is an opinion that the J-15s currently owned by the Chinese navy do not even meet the requirements for operating on the “Liaoning” and “Shandong.” In which case, Type 003 will need new carrier-based aircraft.
The Chinese Aeronautical Establishment declared on its website in July 2020 that “a new generation of fighters will make maiden flight in 2021.” However, even before that, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) had posted the silhouette of a new carrier-based fighter on its website in 2019 and asked Internet users to guess what the aircraft was in a quiz. Therefore, it was thought that the new carrier-based aircraft would take flight in 2021.  There is an opinion that the silhouette posted by AVIC resembled the J-31. Although the People’ Liberation Army has said that the J-31 would not be used because the order of R&D was wrong, there are reports that it is very likely that an upgraded version of the FC-31 for export will be used on the carrier.  On the other hand, the Central Military Commission is said to be keen on upgrading the J-20 for Type 003. As of now, the choice of carrier-based aircraft is still unclear. There had not been any report of new generation fighters being launched as of November 2021.
There are also problems with the training of the Chinese navy’s carrier-based aircraft aviator. The capability of China’s aircraft carriers cannot be gauged based only on the aircraft operational capability of the carrier itself; the capability of the carrier-based aircraft and their aviators must also be taken into account. Furthermore, it is not enough to evaluate China’s military power based only on the performance of its weapons. An analysis of the capabilities for manufacturing and operating each weapon, including technical skills, and so forth is also necessary. Collaboration and balance with other weapons, their role in the overall strategy, and other factors must also be considered.