September 19, 2008: China
announced that its first class of carrier aviators had begun training at the
Dalian Naval Academy. The naval officers will undergo a four year course of
instruction to turn them into fighter pilots capable of operating off a carrier.
China already has an airfield, in the shape of a carrier deck, built at an
inland facility. The Russians have
warned China that it may take them a decade or more to develop the knowledge
and skills needed to efficiently run an aircraft carrier. The Chinese are game,
and are slogging forward.
Earlier this year, the Russian aircraft carrier Varyag was renamed the Shi Lang (after the Chinese general who
took possession of Taiwan in 1681, the
first time China ever paid any attention to the island) and given the pennant
number 83. The Chinese have been refurbishing the Varyag, one of the Kuznetsov
class that Russia began building in the 1980s, for several years now. It is expected to be ready for sea trials by
the end of the year.
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. The new contracts are believed to be for more equipment
for the Varyag, in addition to the non-custom stuff already going into the
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. Currently, the Kuznetsov is operating in
The Chinese have been in touch with Russian naval construction firms,
and may have purchased plans and technology for equipment installed in the Kuznetsov.
Some Chinese leaders have quipped about having a carrier by 2010 (this would
have to be a refurbished Varyag). Even that would be an ambitious schedule, and
the Chinese have been burned before when they tried to build new military
technology in a hurry.