China has issued contracts for the
construction of aircraft carrier systems. Nothing official has been announced,
although Chinese officials have been speaking openly about building an aircraft
carrier. This might clear up the mystery of what China is doing with the former
Russian aircraft carrier Varyag. The Chinese have done some work on the Varyag,
one of two Kuznetsov class that Russia began building in the 1980s.
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 ship.
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.
The Chinese have been in touch with Russian naval
construction firms, and may have purchased plans and technology for equipment
installed in the Kuznetsov. While some Chinese leaders have quipped about
having a carrier in three years (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.