Is China Building Aircraft Carriers?
The recent flurry of articles and revelations about the
submarine-hiding tunnels on Hainan Island in the South China Sea has
again raised questions about China's aircraft carrier program. Indeed, some articles have suggested that the tunnels may be large enough to "hide" an aircraft carrier -- a clear impossibility.
[Photo of 'concrete' carrier: Marc van der Chijs blog]
Articles regularly cite Chinese plans to rehabilitate the ex-Soviet
carrier Varyag, now moored at the port of Dalian, or even the carrier
Minsk, moored as a "theme park" at Shenzhen. Other articles cite
alleged Chinese plans to build up to six aircraft carriers in the near term. A South Korean newspaper has stated that "A source close to Chinese military affairs said . . . that China has been promoting the construction of a 93,000-ton atomic-powered carrier under a plan
titled 085 Project. The nation also has a plan to build a 48,000-ton
non-nuclear-powered carrier under the so-called 089 Project."
The Chinese Navy is certainly interested in aircraft carriers. At the
end of the Cold War a Chinese naval delegation visited the Black Sea
shipyard at Nikolayev in the newly established Ukraine nation to
examine the unfinished Soviet carrier Varyag. Subsequently, shortly
before his retirement in 1997, Admiral Liu Huaqing wrote that it was
"extremely necessary" for China to possess aircraft carriers. Liu was
Commander-in-Chief of the Chinese Navy from 1982 to 1988, and the vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission from 1989 to 1997.
According to Liu, aircraft carriers are needed to protect China's
sovereignty and maritime resources, especially with regard to Taiwan
and the South China Sea; guard China's sea lines of communications as
the country industrializes and becomes a major trading power; enable
China to keep up with regional powers such as India and Japan; and
give China's Navy a decisive edge in future naval warfare.
In the early 1990s the Chinese Navy began a large-scale modernization
program, acquiring advanced submarines, destroyers, anti-ship
missiles, and aircraft, primarily from Russia. Rumors surrounded
those acquisitions that a carrier program was begun when China
acquired the unfinished Russian Varyag and the retired carrier Minsk
in the late 1990s. But both ships had been stripped of all useful
aviation and electronic equipment, and their propulsion plants are
inert; at best they could provide Chinese naval architects with
hands-on design information.
Upon arrival in China the Minsk spent 18 months at the Guangzhou
Wenchong Shipyard for repairs and rehabilitation. She was then towed
to Shenzen, arriving on 9 May 2000, configured as the center piece for a military a museum-theme park. She is certainly not capable of being returned to service as an operational carrier.
The Varyag is equally problematical. Since being towed to Dalian she
has been painted but no other work has been observed, with the ship
being readily visible from public locations.
Returning the Varyag -- designed in the 1960s -- to operational
service would require new propulsion and auxiliary machinery, new
electronics with the attendant wiring of the ship, structural repairs, and other work. Looking at the continued delays and increasing costs of a Russian shipyard rehabilitating and upgrading the Soviet-built carrier Admiral Gorshkov for the Indian Navy, objective analyses shows that the Varyag is highly unlikely to be returned to service. She has lain idle with no work on the ship having been observed since her arrival at Dalian on 3 March 2002.
Rather, it can be expected that in the next few years the Chinese Navy will initiate the construction of small carriers -- possibly modeled on the recent Japanese-built dock landing ships and aegis destroyers that have large flight decks. Such ships would be a reasonable step toward the eventual construction of large carriers -- to be started a decade or more from now.