December 17, 2009: For seven years now, China has been tinkering with a half finished Russian aircraft carrier. Obviously, progress has been slow. But there has been steady progress. The latest development is the construction of a radar mast on the carrier. Officially, the Chinese say nothing. But the dockyard workers keep at it.
Earlier this year, China moved its aircraft carrier, the Shi Lang, into dry dock, apparently to install engines and other heavy equipment. A year ago, this ex-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 a long time, with no announcements of what they are up to, or what to expect. However, it appears that the ship could be ready for sea trials in less than a year. Maybe. No one is sure exactly what plans the Chinese have for the Shi Lang, although work has been going on for years. Currently, it's widely believed that the carrier will eventually be used to train the first generation of Chinese carrier aviators and sailors. Or maybe not. No one who really knows anything about the plans for the Shi Lang, is speaking up. All is observation (from a distance, but good pix are numerous) and speculation.
The Varyag has been 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 the work being done on the ship. Few visible signs of this work are visible; like 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. Shipyard workers report ever tighter security on the carriers, and stern instructions to workers to not report details of what is happening on the carriers.
Originally the Kuznetsovs were to be 90,000 ton, nuclear powered ships, similar to American carriers (complete with steam catapults). Instead, because of the high cost, and the complexity of modern (American style) carriers, the Russians were forced to scale back their plans, 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.
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.
Late last year, 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.