Over the past week, a number of photos of China's third aircraft carrier have leaked online.
The photos appear to show a ship that is very different from the first two Chinese carriers.
"It is not a US carrier, as things are today, but it's still a huge step for China," an expert said.
China's third aircraft carrier, which is expected to be the country's first modern flattop, is starting to take shape at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, new images that have steadily been leaking online appear to show.
Before 2012, China did not have any aircraft carriers, but over the years, it has managed to develop a modest carrier capability.
China's People's Liberation Army Navy has two aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong.
The country built the first from the refitted hull of an old Soviet vessel. The second, which was China's first indigenously produced aircraft carrier, was a larger, slightly improved copy of the Liaoning.
But the latest images of China's third carrier, gathered from Chinese social media and posted on Twitter by Andreas Rupprecht, an expert on the Chinese military, hint at what has long been expected of this new ship - that it is likely going to be a step forward for the country's aircraft-carrier program.
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Thomas Shugart, an adjunct senior fellow in the defense program in the Center for New American Security, said the ship "is definitely starting to look like a real-deal CATOBAR aircraft carrier."
There are still a number of unknowns, but as more and more photos come out, they are painting a clearer picture of how the construction of this new ship, a still unnamed vessel designated as the Type 003, is progressing.
There have even been some up-close shots of the new aircraft carrier.
And some online observers have already started trying to work out what the carrier will look like based on the images of the construction, though some experts suggest it might still be a bit too early to tell with certainty.
Matthew Funaiole, a senior fellow and China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, looked at satellite imagery of the construction efforts at Jiangnan this week.
"They still have not put the island in place. They are still working on the flight deck. There's still quite a lot of work to be done," he told Insider. But some things about the ship are starting to become clearer.
The vessel is noticeably larger than the first two carriers, which gives China the ability to field a bigger and more diverse air wing, a necessary step as China works to build a modern navy able to project power farther from its shores.
He said that considering the development of China's third aircraft carrier, as well as China's interests, there was reason to suspect the country would have some kind of catapult system for launching carrier aircraft, but that has not been confirmed.
"They're still working on the front of the vessel," Funaiole said.
"It is very likely that the ship is going to have some type of catapult system," he added. "We are still trying to figure out what that's going to look like, but it's hard to imagine it not having a catapult system."
"It wouldn't really make sense, as far as what China is aiming to do with its carrier program, to have another ski-ramp style carrier," he said.
His assessment is generally consistent with the Department of Defense's observations in its annual report on China's military power.
Construction of the Type 003 aircraft carrier began in 2018. The next year, the Department of Defense released an assessment of the project, writing that the ship "will likely be larger" than the Liaoning and the Shandong "and fitted with a catapult launch system."
"This design will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations," the department report said.
The first two Chinese aircraft carriers both use ski-jump-assisted short-takeoff-but-arrested-recovery (STOBAR) launch systems to sortie aircraft. This design can be seen on other aircraft carriers, like Russia's Admiral Kuznetsov and Britain's Queen Elizabeth.
Ski jumps are significantly less effective than the steam or electromagnetic catapult-assisted takeoff-but-arrested-recovery (CATOBAR) launch systems that US carriers use because they lower the maximum takeoff weight for carrier-based aircraft.
The design presents certain problems for the Chinese Shenyang J-15, China's primary carrier-based fighter.
The aircraft, which is based on an incomplete prototype of the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 carrier air-superiority fighter that China acquired from Ukraine and then reverse engineered, is one of the heaviest carrier fighters out there.
The J-15 is a capable multirole fighter, and it can carry a decent amount of weapons and fuel.
The big problem is that the design of China's current aircraft carriers means it can take off with only a small fraction of the weapons and fuel it was designed to carry, which significantly reduces its range and overall combat capability.
Timothy Heath, a senior defense researcher at the Rand Corp., previously told Insider that "with a ski-slope configuration, weight becomes your enemy, and the J-15, as a heavy airplane, starts to be the victim of its own design."
A modern carrier equipped with "catapults would allow the J-15's advantages to come into play," he said. Reporting, as well as some leaked imagery, suggests China is already developing a CATOBAR variant of the J-15.
There are also indications that China may already be looking beyond the J-15 for its carrier fighter. Some have speculated that the FC-31, a Chinese stealth fighter that is still in development, might be the next carrier fighter.
This week, photos showing an FC-31 mock-up on the "flight deck" of a concrete carrier in Wuhan, China, surfaced online. The undated photos appear to offer some support to theories about next steps for Chinese naval aviation.
-@Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino) June 8, 2021
"They're in a place now where they're understanding how to build aircraft carriers, but figuring out the naval aviation side of it is still an area where China still has some unknowns," Funaiole said, adding: "It's likely they're going to explore all available options to figure out what's going to work best."
He said China appeared to be making great strides advancing its carrier program. "It is not a US carrier, as things are today," he said of China's third aircraft carrier, "but it's still a huge step for China. It's impressive what they have been able to do in a short amount of time."
While it might be some time before the final design is clear, the new aircraft carrier looks to be a "pretty significant upgrade from where they are at right now," Funaiole said. "But this is where you get into the question of what does this actually mean in practice," he added.
"The biggest struggle for China isn't going to be the technology," he said. "It's going to be the personnel. And that's not a knock on the Chinese. They're just new to it."
China has the largest navy, according to the Pentagon, and it is building new ships faster than any other country. But it is still learning what it means to have a great-power navy.
While it will inevitably take China time to develop the carrier-operations knowledge and experience to go along with its expanding fleet of flattops, the country's newest carrier suggests the country is making progress as it strives to build a world-class combat force by the middle of this century.
The Pentagon said last year, in its most recent assessment of China's military power, that the third Chinese carrier would likely be operational by 2024, with additional aircraft carriers to follow.
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