May 30, 2006:
The mystery, of what China is doing with the former Russian aircraft carrier Varyag, continues. The Chinese appear to be doing some kind of work on the Varyag, one of two Kuznetsov class that Russia began building in the 1980s. The Varyag has been tied up in a Chinese shipyard at Dailan since 2002. While the ship is under guard, it can be seen from a nearby highway. From that vantage point, local military and naval buffs have noted that some kind of work is being done on the ship. The only visible signs of this work are a new paint job (in the gray shade used by the Chinese navy) and ongoing work on the superstructure (particularly the tall "island" on the flight deck.) Many workers can be seen on the ship, and material is seen going into (new stuff) and out of (old stuff) the ship.
Originally the Kuznetsovs were conceived of as 90,000 ton, nuclear powered ships, similar to American carriers (complete with steam catapults). Instead, because of the cost, and the complexity of modern (American style) carriers, the Russians were forced to scale back their goals, and ended up with the 65,000 ton (full load ) ships that lacked steam catapults, and used a ski jump type flight deck instead. Nuclear power was dropped, but the Kuznetsov class was still a formidable design. The thousand foot long carrier normally carries a dozen navalized Su-27s (called Su-33s), 14 Ka-27PL anti-submarine helicopters, two electronic warfare helicopters and two search and rescue helicopters. But the ship can carry up to 36 Su-33s and sixteen helicopters. The ship carries 2,500 tons of aviation fuel, allowing it to generate 500-1,000 aircraft and helicopter sorties. Crew size is 2,500 (or 3,000 with a full aircraft load.) Only two ships of this class exist; the original Kuznetsov, which is in Russian service, and the varyag.
Because of the expense, and risk of accidents with an inexperienced crew, the Kuznetsov doesn't get to sea much. But the Russians have had enough experience with Kuznetsov to encourage them to get develop plans for two more, larger, carriers. These new ships, which are not expected until the next decade, if ever, may look like current carriers, but will probably be quite different inside. For one thing, the Russians would probably arm any future class of carriers with more missiles and robotic aircraft (combat UAVs.) Even the Kuznetsov had twelve aircraft size P-500 Shipwreck anti-ship missiles. These were launched from tubes mounted beneath the flight deck.
The Kuznetsovs also had 24 anti-aircraft missile launchers, as well as 30mm close-in guns, anti-torpedo decoy rockers and lots of radars and electronics. Thus the Chinese have much to learn from how the Varyag, and it's 3,800 compartments, and 16 kilometers of internal passageways. The Kuznetsov was designed based on decades of Russian experience building, and operating smaller carriers. The Russians had also obtained much technical data on the most modern U.S. carriers. Thus the Varyag is a huge depository of useful information on how to build an aircraft carrier. And that's apparently how the Chinese are using it. At the same time, the Chinese are spending a lot of time, and money, installing new equipment on the Varyag (which arrived in China without engines.) So far, China has been silent on their plans for the Varyag, but judging from what has been going on with the ship in the Dalian harbor, something substantial is happening.