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Chinese Carrier Plans Revealed
by James Dunnigan
January 1, 2011

An obscure, but unclassified, Chinese government report revealed China's carrier aviation plans. These call for a non-nuclear, 60,000 ton, carrier to be launched within four years, and enter service by the end of the decade. The plan calls for a larger, nuclear powered, carrier to be launched within ten years. Meanwhile, the Shi Lang (the refurbished Russian Varyag) is to enter service as a training carrier within two years.

There was no secret about the Shi Lang. For eight years now, China has been tinkering with a half finished Russian aircraft carrier. Two years ago, the ex-Soviet/Russian/Ukrainian 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.

Until last year, progress was slow, and China's carrier plans were murky. But the recently released report indicated that the decision to proceed with building a carrier fleet was made last year. That accounts for the increased progress on the Shi Lang lately. Early in 2009, China moved the Shi Lang into dry dock, where work was obviously underway to install engines and other heavy equipment. A year ago, the radar mast was completed, and now there is a Chinese radar system being installed. Officially, the Chinese said nothing. But the dockyard workers keep at it, and it was possible to take photos from a distance. It appeared that the Shi Lang was a year or so from going to sea.

For a long time, no one was sure exactly what plans the Chinese had for the Shi Lang, although work had been going on for years. It was long believed that the carrier would eventually be used to train the first generation of Chinese carrier aviators and sailors. Until now, all was based on observation (from a distance, but good pix were numerous) and speculation.

The Varyag has been in a Chinese shipyard at Dailan since 2002. For a long time, there were few visible signs of work. There was 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 could be seen on the ship, and material was seen going into (new stuff) and out of (old stuff) of the ship. Shipyard workers reported ever tighter security on the carrier, and stern instructions to not report details of what is happening on the ship.

The 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 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 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 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), but it soon became clear that 2012 was more likely. Even that may be too soon, as the Chinese have been burned before when they tried to build new military technology in a hurry. The Chinese appear intent on getting it right the first time.

Two years ago, China announced that its first class of carrier aviators had begun training at the Dalian Naval Academy. The naval officers are undergoing 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.

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