June 26, 2012: China's first aircraft carrier, the Shi Lang (formerly the Russian Varyag), recently went to sea for the eighth time since it began sea trials last August. The latest trip is to last 13 days. The previous longest trip was last November 28, when the Shi Lang went out for 12 days. The first trip (last August 11) was for three days, most subsequent ones were for 9-11 days. So far, the Shi Lang has been at sea for ten weeks. All preparations have been made for flight operations, which have not taken place yet.
The Shi Lang has apparently performed well during these extended sea trials. Three months ago some aircraft were spotted on the flight deck. This was probably to make sure aircraft could be moved around the deck, and down to the hanger deck, without any problems. Last year China confirmed that the Shi Lang will primarily be a training carrier. The Chinese Navy is supposed to take possession of the Shi Lang later this year. The Chinese apparently plan to station up to 24 jet fighters and 26 helicopters on the Shi Lang.
Shi Lang/Varyag is one of the Kuznetsov class carriers that Russia began building in the 1980s. 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 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 Kuznetsovs were still a formidable design. The 323 meter (thousand foot) long ship 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 was built to regularly carry 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/Shi Lang.
China is believed to be building the first of several locally designed aircraft carriers but little is known of this project. The only official announcements have alluded to the need for two or three aircraft carriers, in addition to the Shi Lang. Construction of such large ships has not yet been seen in any shipyard.