The Chinese Navy Air Force is now training its own fighter pilots (or "aviators" as they are known in the navy), and training them to operate from aircraft carriers. In the past, Chinese navy fighter pilots went to Chinese Air Force fighter training schools, and then transferred to navy flight training schools to learn how to perform their specialized (over open water) missions. Now, operating from carriers, and performing jobs carrier fighter pilots perform, has been added to the navy fighter pilot curriculum. It was only a year ago that China announced its first class of carrier aviators had begun training at the Dalian Naval Academy. The naval officers undergo a four year course of instruction to turn them into fighter pilots capable of operating off a carrier. The Russians 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.
For over five years now, China has been developing a carrier version of the Russian Su-27, calling it the J-15. There is already a Russian version of this, called the Su-33. Russia refused to sell Su-33s to China, when it was noted that China was making illegal copies of the Su-27 (as the J-11), and refused to place a big order for Su-33s, but only wanted two, for "evaluation." China eventually got a Su-33 from Ukraine, which inherited some when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The first prototypes of the J-15 have been under construction for two years, and the aircraft is believed to have taken its first flight in the last few months. The Russians are not happy with this development. Russian aviation experts have openly derided the J-15, casting doubt on the ability of Chinese engineers to replicate key features of the Su-33. That remains to be seen, as the Chinese have screwed up copying Russian military tech in the past. But the Chinese have a lot of experience stealing foreign tech, so the J-15 may well turn out to be at least as good as the Su-33 (which Russia itself has stopped using as too large and expensive). Earlier this year, Google Earth revealed a Chinese air base where a mockup of the aircraft carrier Shi Lang (formerly the Russian Varyag) flight deck had been constructed. Here, Chinese carrier pilots will begin their training in the difficult task of landing on a carrier.
At the same time, the Shi Lang was moved into dry dock, apparently to install engines and other heavy equipment. It was only a year ago that 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 Varyag is one of the Kuznetsov class carriers Russia began building in the 1980s. No one is sure exactly what plans the Chinese have for the Shi Lang, despite the years of work. Currently, it's 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. A few obvious 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 carrier, and stern instructions 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 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.