China’s new Type 003 aircraft carrier has a problem

The Covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai is doing more than anger the city’s residents. It’s also delaying the construction of China’s newest aircraft carrier.

Vital components haven’t arrived and shipyard workers have been confined to their homes, quashing plans to unveil the ship earlier in April, according to the South China Morning Post.

“The People’s Liberation Army Navy had been widely expected to launch the new carrier around the navy’s 73rd anniversary, on April 23,” said the newspaper.

The Type 003 carrier – under construction at the Jiangnan Shipyard since 2017 — will be the third of China’s growing fleet of carriers, and the most advanced. At about 100,000 tons, it will be bigger than the two earlier carriers – the Liaoning and the Shandong — that weigh in at 60,000 to 70,000 tons. More significant is that while the first two carriers are ski-jump designs limited to short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft, the Type 003 will be an American-style flat-deck design equipped with electromagnetic catapults that can launch heavier planes.

“Recent satellite image from Google Earth showed construction of the nearly 320-metre-long platform is almost completed,” the Post noted. “According to the photos, covers have been put over the vessel’s three catapults, indicating they are ready, but the two elevators to lift aircraft from the carrier’s hangars have not been fitted fully.”

China’s draconian zero-Covid policy, which favors strict lockdowns over mass vaccination, aims to eradicate the coronavirus rather than manage it as most nations have opted to do. Shanghai has recently become the focus of the controversial policy after a five-week lockdown. This has sparked unusually public protests – at least in China — from residents who complain of insufficient food, as well as harsh measures such as mandatory confinement to prison-like “treatment centers” and children being separated from parents.

Anti-pandemic measures have disrupted manufacturing and supply chains around the world. It was only to be expected that lockdowns would disrupt activity in a major shipbuilding center such as Shanghai, whose dockyards construct both military and civilian vessels.

But politics is another reason why the launch ceremony has been delayed, the Post said. Chinese officials don’t want to get sick. “A big ceremony needs a lot of people,” an unnamed source told the newspaper. “But it’s too risky and difficult to get too many people together in the limited space of an aircraft carrier, given how contagious the Omicron variant is.”

Delays in finishing the Type 003 carrier could set back the completion of other ships in China’s growing navy, including two naval supply vessels under construction in Shanghai. “Construction work of the two naval supply ships will only start when the aircraft carrier’s dockyard is empty. But now everything is stuck,” the source said.

Aircraft carriers are the centerpiece of the Chinese navy’s plans to overturn U.S. naval power, which would be key to thwarting a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan. China is currently expected to build four carriers, with the fourth likely to be nuclear-powered.

The Type 003, China’s first modern aircraft carrier, will enable the People’s Liberation Army Navy to project power past the “first island chain,” says a report recently published by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense. The “first island chain” refers to the major archipelagos out from the East Asian mainland coast stretching from the Kamchatka Peninsula in the northeast to the Malay Peninsula in the southwest, including U.S. interests and allies such as Taiwan and the Philipines.

China’s new carrier is expected to be fully operational by 2025 and will feature advanced electronic warfare devices and a modern catapult system. While these advancements represent a significant technological leap for Beijing, experts who spoke with Military Times did not believe its development would detract from U.S. operations in the Pacific theater.

“There are currently only two countries, the U.S. and France, that utilize CATOBAR launch systems, so the Type 003 will put China in an elite group,” Matthew P. Funaiole, Senior Fellow, China Power Project and Senior Fellow for Data Analysis, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Military Times.

Currently, China operates two carriers who use STOBAR, or Short Takeoff But Arrested Recovery. This system utilizes a deck that utilizes a “ski jump” to assist aircraft during takeoff rather than a catapult. While STOBAR is a cheaper system to both build and operate, there are significant drawbacks to STOBAR. These include weight limitations that impact the payload size of aircraft and restrictions on what kinds of aircraft can launch VIA STOBAR.

“The increased size of the 003, paired with a greatly improved launch system when compared to its predecessors, also opens the door to a larger and more diverse carrier airwing down the road,” Craig Singleton, an adjunct fellow at Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Military Times.

While it is known that the Type 003 is incorporating a state-of-the-art launch and recovery system, it is anticipated that Beijing will equip the carrier with advanced Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities. However, due to the speed at which technology advances, this suite’s full scope and effectiveness will probably not be evident until the ship sets sail.

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