The Chinese military has built a target vessel mockup in a remote desert region that precisely matches the dimensions of the first-in-class carrier USS Gerald R. Ford. U.S.-based satellite company Planet Labs has released photos of the site taken January 1, and the imaging confirms that the People's Liberation Army has built a large Ford-shaped target in the sand at a facility in Western China.
The two-dimensional fabric target is clearly modeled on a Ford-class vessel, matching precisely with the carrier's unique topsides geometry. Fore-to-aft, it is the same length as USS Ford, and its superstructure is in the same place. The photos were first reported by The Drive, and may be found here.
It is far from the first time that satellites have spotted large, detailed target outlines of American warships at the site. In 2021, Maxar Technologies photographed similar arrangements at the location in the Taklaman Desert, to the west of Ruoquiang, Xinjiang Province.
Analysts believe that the purpose of the site may be for ballistic-missile targeting. China is known to possess two anti-ship ballistic missiles, the "carrier-killer" DF-21D and DF-26, and it is possible that the targets are used to develop remote-sensing and targeting systems for these missiles or other devices.
Lu Li-shih, an analyst and former instructor with Taiwan's Naval Academy, told South China Morning Post in 2021 that the site's location is significant. It is about 1,600 miles from known PLA Rocket Force launch sites in Inner Mongolia - just about right for simulating a long-range strike from central China into the South China Sea. The imaging (both from 2021 and 2024) shows no signs of impact craters, so the targets might not be used for live-fire testing.