This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows rail terminal and target storage building in Ruoqiang county, China, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. Satellite images appear to show China has built mock-ups of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and destroyers in its northwestern desert, such as one shown at bottom left in this image, possibly as practice for a future naval clash as tensions rise between the nations. AP
The US Navy's carrier battle groups -- centered around massive aircraft carriers -- are among the most powerful weapons in the American arsenal.
One is deployed with the 7th Fleet in the Pacific, watching over major flashpoint areas such as Taiwan and the South China Sea.
China has been developing anti-ship missiles for years, including ones capable of taking out aircraft carriers.
In satellite images captured last month by Maxar Technologies and sent to AFP on Sunday, huge outlines of American naval vessels were seen in the Taklamakan Desert in China's western Xinjiang region.
They included at least one shaped like an aircraft carrier, and another in the form of a destroyer. One target was seen mounted on a rail transportation system.
The full-scale structures included flat outlines as well as more sophisticated ones with what appeared to be instrumentation poles, according to the US Naval Institute.
"Analysis of historical satellite images shows that the carrier target structure was first built between March and April of 2019," the USNI report said.
"It underwent several rebuilds and was then substantially dismantled in December 2019. The site came back to life in late September of this year and the structure was substantially complete by early October."
The USNI cited intelligence firm AllSource Analysis as saying the area has been used for testing ballistic missiles in the past.
When asked about the images, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Monday that he was "not aware of the situation".
- 'Unmistakable message' -
Beijing is currently on a major arms modernization drive, according to a Pentagon report released last week on the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA), with many weapons designed to help neutralize the most important American warships in the event of a regional conflict.
These include the DF-21D missile, which has a range of more than 930 miles (1,500 kilometers), the Pentagon said.
It provides "the capability to conduct long-range precision strikes against ships, including aircraft carriers, out to the Western Pacific from mainland China," the report added.
The Chinese military has deployed these missiles in exercises, in what US Navy Admiral Philip Davidson has described as "an unmistakable message to regional and global audiences".