May 7 (UPI) -- Construction is underway on China's third aircraft carrier, and the new vessel is believed to be bigger and more powerful than the country's first two.
Commercial satellite imagery obtained by ChinaPower, a project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, shows construction underway at China's Jiangnan Shipyard on the third carrier.
China's first home-built vessel, which is currently undergoing sea trials, will "likely join the fleet by the end of 2019," according to a Department of Defense 136-page report to Congress on "Military and Security Developments Involving People's Republic of China 2019" released last week.
The new vessel is a modified version of its original ship, the Liaoning, which was purchased from Ukraine, but "is similarly limited in its capabilities due to its lack of a catapult launch system and a smaller flight deck than the deck on U.S. carriers," according to the Pentagon.
China began construction of its second domestically built aircraft carrier in 2018, which will likely be larger and fitted with a catapult launch system, the Pentagon said. "This design will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations," according to the report.
The ship is projected by the Pentagon to be operational by 2022.
China plans to have four aircraft carrier battle groups in service by 2030, naval experts told the South China Morning Post.
"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 ChinaPower Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Business Insider. "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."
The catapult launch system's power system is unclear. U.S. Nimitz-class carriers are steam powered, while the Ford-class carriers will be electromagnetic. The new Chinese ships are also likely conventionally powered, compared with U.S. ships that are nuclear driven.
The imagery obtained on April 17 shows significant new activity since ChinaPower first analyzed the shipyard in late 2018.
A large vessel is being assembled and a floodable basin is being constructed at a new assembly facility to the southeast of the existing shipyard. A bow and main hull section of the vessel are taking shape, though no access to the river to launch vessels is currently available.
The ship is estimated to be 80,000 to 85,000 tons compared with the first domestic aircraft carrier of 66,000 to 70,000 tons.
China's first aircraft carrier Liaoning weighs 60,000 to 66,000 tons and is the flagship of China's navy.
The Soviet Navy launched the Kuznetsov-class aircraft cruiser in 1988 as Riga and renamed it Varyag in 1990. When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, construction was halted and the ship was put up for sale by Ukraine. The ship was rebuilt and commissioned into the People's Liberation Army Navy in 2012.
China has been modernizing its military with a "world-class" force projected by 2049, according to the Pentagon report. Besides the carriers, China is developing a hypersonic glide vehicle.
In the Arctic, China has launched icebreakers and civilian research stations in Iceland and Norway with a fleet of nuclear-armed submarines to the Arctic region forecast, the Pentagon reported.
And, China has been maintaining its military presence in the disputed South China Sea.
On Monday, Beijing's claim to the Gaven and Johnson reefs was challenged by two U.S. guided-missile destroyers, the USS Preble and USS Chung-Hoon. It asserted international rights to "innocent passage" and "challenge excessive maritime claims" to those areas by the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Geng Shuang said country's navy "identified and warned off" the U.S. warships. An international tribunal in 2016 has discredited China's claims to the area.