The China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, currently hard at work developing what is to be China’s third aircraft carrier, released an artist’s rendering of the forthcoming Type 002 carrier last week that gives us a glimpse into what to expect from China’s growing carrier fleet. The image, seen in the background of a presentation shared on Chinese social media, has since been taken down — but not before interested parties were able to extrapolate some of the new ship’s upgrades based on what they could see.

Per Chinese officials, this new carrier is expected to take to the seas by 2021, adding a third carrier to China’s green-water fleet, but not quite representing the technological match for America’s fleet of supercarriers it’s being presented as in many media outlets. While the image appears to depict this new carrier employing some advanced systems that parallel those touted by America’s newest Ford class of aircraft carriers, including three electromagnetic launch catapults. This technology is new on the Ford class of carriers (Nimitz class carriers utilize steam-powered catapults) and is said to dramatically decrease wear and tear on airframes while simultaneously increasing the speed in which sorties are launched from the deck of the vessel.

Of course, that development in itself doesn’t mean much — the electromagnetic catapult system, while touted as simpler and cheaper to employ than the steam systems of previous ships, has proven difficult to stand up in practical application, and further, the image appears to depict the new carrier launching the  troubled J-15 from its deck. It has been assumed that China will begin fielding J-31s (a platform based largely on stolen plans for America’s F-35) on their carriers, as the J-15 has run into issues with reliability in recent years. Until such a plan is confirmed, however, China’s carriers will remain armed with dated fourth generation platforms that would likely present little threat to even America’s most advanced fourth generation platforms like the currently under development Block III variant of the carrier-based F/A-18 Super Hornet, let alone the stealthy F-35C.

The new carrier also falls significantly short of the Ford class carrier and even Nimitz class carriers in terms of total displacement. At an estimated 70,000 tons, the Type 002 Carrier weighs in at around three fourths the size of a Nimitz class carrier, let alone the slightly larger Ford class.

America’s latest Ford Class carriers boast nuclear power and displace more than 30,000 tons more water than China’s forthcoming Type 002. | Wikimedia Commons

However, the most significant limitation facing the Type 002 carrier has nothing to do with the aircraft it will field or its size: it has to do with its propulsion systems. Like China’s first two carriers, the Type 002 will lack the nuclear power America’s fleet of carriers relies on to allow them to operate anywhere in the world. The Type 002, despite a number of significant advancements over its two predecessors, will still be beholden to operating within reach of refueling stations, and any journey that extends beyond China’s territorial waters will require refueling stops in friendly ports — a complication American carriers are able to forgo thanks to their nuclear power.

Rumors suggest that China’s fourth carrier will be equipped with nuclear power, finally launching their Navy out of the green-water classification (meaning shallow and near to shore) and into contention with nations like France and the United States, who field truly globally capable carrier platforms (commonly referred to as “blue-water” capable).

Without nuclear power or any effective carrier-launched aircraft to speak of, China’s green-water carrier fleet is certainly a threat worthy of consideration for Pacific operations, particularly in the increasingly militarized South China Sea, but it will still be years before China’s carriers represent an actual match for America’s in terms of capability and force projection.

Image courtesy of Chinese social media