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Satellite images show China made an apparent USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier target out in the desert

Chris Panella   

Satellite images show China made an apparent USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier target out in the desert
  • China has a new carrier-shaped target, and it looks a lot like the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford.
  • Satellite images show the suspected target on a range in the desert.

New satellite images have captured what appears to be a mock-up of the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier on a range in a Chinese desert.

The carrier-shaped object, like some of the others in the area, is likely there for target practice, allowing China to test its increasingly formidable missile force and may highlight Chinese efforts to build a force capable of keeping American warships at bay.

The satellite images, which were taken on January 1 by Planet Labs, show the apparent target in the Taklamakan Desert. The suspected target appears to match the shape, size, and certain details of the USS Gerald R. Ford, according to The War Zone, which first reported the satellite images.

The Planet Labs images show the island, more aft than Nimitz-class carriers, and the four catapult tracks marked on the model's deck. The design is consistent with that of the Ford, and the shape is over 1,000 feet long.

Work on the model began in November 2023, according to The War Zone's review of past satellite imagery. An outline has been present for a while before a more detailed target was erected.

Planet Labs also took pictures of additional targets, one an apparent US Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. That had previously been a silhouette but now looks to have structural improvements to match a destroyer.

The range in the Taklamakan Desert, located in the Ruoqiang area of Xinjiang in northwest China, is an area for what is believed to be missile-strike training. Satellite images have repeatedly documented what look to be models of US warships in the area.

In one instance, satellite images back in October 2021 captured what appeared to be a warship target on a rail system that could move back and forth.

In the Indo-Pacific region, the US Navy regularly operates aircraft carriers and other warships, routinely patrolling waters and frequently conducting military exercises. These activities at times cause friction with China.

In the event of a conflict, it is expected that China would target US carriers given their high-profile status and role.

If China is looking to test missiles against the model of the Ford, it would align with their apparent goals to bolster the capabilities of the rocket force, including its anti-ship elements.

In October 2023, the US Department of Defense released its annual China Military Power Report analyzing China's growing military might and combat capability. The report's estimates on the Chinese missile stockpiles showed significant increases across the board since the previous year.

Intermediate-range ballistic missiles like the DF-26, saw a staggering jump from 300 stockpiled in 2021 to 500 in 2022. Those missiles have an estimated range of 1,000-3,000km, and while they are called "Guam Killers" given their potential to strike US forces on the Pacific island, their anti-ship role led to the nickname "carrier killer."

A larger stockpile of DF-26s could threaten US aircraft carriers like the Ford, allowing China to target them from a safe distance. China has also increased its arsenal of medium-range missiles, some of which also have anti-ship capabilities.

The Chinese military also has a variety of anti-ship cruise missiles.

The USS Gerald R. Ford ,the Navy's newest and most advanced aircraft carrier, is returning home from its first full deployment. The supercarrier, as it is referred to considering its size and abilities, was first commissioned more than five years ago and has been in the making for over a decade. The warship's hefty price tag exceeded $13 billion and majorly inflated due to delays and technological integration issues.

Until recently, the Ford has been operating in waters near Israel. It relocated there in October in response to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.


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