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Shi Lang Headed For Service
by James Dunnigan
May 8, 2011

All indicators are that the new Chinese aircraft carrier, the Shi Lang (formerly Varyag) will go to sea before the end of the year, after nearly nine years of reconstruction and upgrades. Defensive weapons, and more electronics, are being installed now, and major internal work appears to have been completed.

The training of carrier aviators is underway at a land based mock-up of the Shi Lang's deck. China has bought four sets of carrier deck arrestor gear (the cables and associated mechanical gear on which the tail hook of landing aircraft catches). One set was installed at the land based mockup of the Shi Lang flight deck. Another was installed on the Shi Lang, and the other two sets are apparently for the two new carriers China is building. One of these is already under construction.

The 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 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 was meant 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. Like most modern carriers, the only weapons carried are anti-missile systems like Phalanx and FL-3000N, plus some heavy machine-guns (which are often kept inside the ship, and mounted outside only when needed.)

There are also indications that China is trying to design and build a catapult system for its two new carriers (and perhaps as a retrofit for Shi Lang.) Russia tried to develop a catapult launch system, but failed, and instead went with the "ski jump" system seen on the Kuznetsov and Shi Lang.

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