26 Years Later the Chinese Have an Aircraft Carrier

Originally, to be the Soviet Carrier Varyag, she is now China’s first flattop after a weird and sketchy trip.

The Original Ship

Laid down in 1985 by the Soviet Union, at 65,000-tons and 1000-feet long overall, she was the largest Russian warship to ever make it off the drawing board. Designed with rooms for 3857 embarked personnel she was to carry 1960 crewmembers, a 626-man air group, 40 flag officers, and a battalion of Naval Infantry if needed.  Her air group would be two squadrons of MIG-29Ks fighters, a squadron of SU-33 strike planes, and two squadrons of Ka-27 helicopters for antisubmarine and transport. A total of about 50 aircraft. A huge battery of defensive and offensive missiles meant the ship could act independently and without escorts if needed.  A steam power plant was designed to make the ship capable of 30+ knots and stay at sea for 45 days, or 8000-nautical miles (enough to sail from Murmansk to New York and back on one tank of gas).

Varyag as designed by Soviet Union

She was never completed and construction stopped after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For six years she languished in the Ukraine incomplete and rusting away. Looters stripped her and she never did have her she engines, rudder, and much of her operating systems (read=weapons) installed.

The Sale!

In April 1998, Ukrainian Trade Minister Roman Shpek announced that the hulk had been sold for US$25 million to the “Chong Lot Travel Agency Ltd”, a small company based in Hong Kong. They proposed to tow Varyag out of the Black Sea, through the Suez Canal and around southern Asia to Macau, where they would moor the ship and convert it into a floating hotel and gambling parlor. It would be similar to the attractions Kiev in Tianjin and Minsk at Minsk World in Shenzhen.

The hulk was towed at six knots for 15,000-miles and held up for months trying to pass the Bospherous, caught a near-hurricane off Greece, prevented from transiting the Suez Canal and finally, four years later, entered Chinese waters on February 20, 2002, and arrived March 3 at Dalian Shipyard in northeastern China. The total cost of acquiring the hulk was over $30 million USD: $25 million to the Ukrainian government for the hull, nearly $500,000 in transit fees, and some $5 million for the towing.

The 70% completed, engineless ex-Varyag under tow to her new home, offically as a Hong Kong casino ship

Bait and Switch

China continued to assert that Varyag would be a casino. When Macau awarded new casino licenses in February 2002, Chong Lot was not among successful bidders. The hulk was tied up at Dalian.

2001- An unfinished Su-33 prototype, the T-10K-3, was acquired from Ukraine sometime in 2001 and is said to have been studied extensively, with development on the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation’s J-15 Flying Shark beginning immediately afterward.

The SU-33 In Russian Service, Not to be for China...at least not from Russia

The Varyag was moved in early June 2005 to a dry dock at Dalian (38.9414°N 121.6447°E). Her hull was sandblasted and scaffolding erected around her. The most visible modification done to the Varyag is that her island has been painted in a red marine primer that is used to treat corroded metal.

On October 24, 2006, the Kommersant online daily newspaper reported that Russia planned to sell up to 50 Su-33 fighters to China through Rosoboronexport, in a $2.5 billion deal.

2008 Photos in the Dalian Shipyard have shown that a yellow anti-skid primer was added to the flight deck. Then the final flight deck turf layering was added on top of it. The vessel has also been painted in the standard PLA Naval colours.

Jane’s Fighting Ships states that Varyag may have been named Shi Lang and assigned pennant number 83. Jane’s notes that both the name and pennant number are unconfirmed. Shi Lang was a Ming-Qing Dynasty admiral who defeated Koxinga’s descendants’ navy and conquered Taiwan in 1681.

Jane’s Navy International noted in October 2007 “refurbishment work and fitting out is continuing and the vessel is expected to begin initial sea trials in 2008.”

At the end of 2008, the Asahi Shimbun reported that the carrier was “nearing completion.”

In March 2009, Moskovskij Komsomolets reported that negotiations to buy the 50 SU-33s from Russia had collapsed over Russian fears that China might begin producing cheaper export versions of the Su-33 with Chinese avionics and systems, undercutting Russian exports, in the same way as with the J-11B (Chinese version of the Su-27).

On April 27, 2009 Varyag was reported to have been moved into another dry dock, “apparently to install engines and other heavy equipment”.

August 2009- The Chinese first J-15 carrier fighter prototype is believed to have performed its maiden flight on August 31, 2009, powered by Russian-supplied AL-31 turbofan engines.

J-15 Flying Shark model

A new radar mast has been installed on Varyag’s superstructure as of December 15, 2009.

In 2009, at the Wuhan Naval Research facilities near Huangjia Lake in the southwestern suburbs of Wuhan, the PLAN constructed a full-scale logistics and training deck and island mockup of the Varyag.

May 6, 2010, the prototype Chinese J-15 carrier based aircraft conducted its first takeoff from a simulated ski-jump.

Early 2011, the still officially civilian-owned ship is still docked in Dalian shipyard, and is being fitted out with combat sensors, and defensive weapons. The vessel is also beginning to run power as well. Recent photos have shown steam and exhaust coming from the ship’s island, further suggesting her engines and propulsion will be operational soon. Sensors that have been observed are Active Electronically Scanned Array(AESA) and Sea Eagle radar. Weapons observed have been the Type 1030 CIWS, and the FL-3000N missile system (making her the most heavily armed casino in the world).

It has also been observed that the old anti-ship missile tubes have been plugged and will not be used, thus freeing up more internal space for hangar or storage use. Russia plans to do the same when it modernizes the Varyag’s sister Kuznetsov.|date=April 2011}} The Kamov Ka-31 has been confirmed as purchased and operational with the PLAN, and may form the Airborne early warning and control basis for the ship’s air wing.

On June 8, 2011, the Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, Gen. Chen Bingde confirmed that Beijing is building an aircraft carrier, marking the first acknowledgement of the ship’s existence from China’s armed forces. He said that the refurbished Soviet carrier “is being built, but has not been completed.” The ship would be used for training and as a model for a future indigenously built ship and is expected to be launched by the end of June at the earliest. Qi Jianguo, assistant to the chief of the PLA’s general staff said, “All of the great nations in the world own aircraft carriers — they are symbols of a great power”

In July 2011, it was reported FWS-10H turbofan engine was chosen for J-15 fighter, which has takeoff thrust increased to 12,800 kg, comparing FWS-10 turbofan’s 12,500 kg. Other improvements were also made to make it better suited to carrier-based fighter’s requirement. Some components onboard J-15 are based on those onboard J-11B, such as the anti-ship enhanced PD radar, the glass cockpit as well as the improved WS-10 turbofan engine. It can also fire a variety of Chinese designed weapons, including PL-8, PL-12 AAMs and YJ-83K AShM. Overall J-15 is believed to be in the same class of American F/A-18C. —–Chinese officials however commented that the J-15 could match the performance of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the Rafale M naval fighters. Some analysts believe the J-15 likely possesses superior aerodynamic capabilities to all fighter aircraft operated by regional militaries with the exception of the F-22. The J-15 is also believed to possess a 10% superior thrust to weight ratio and a 25% lower wing loading than the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

The J-15 Flying Shark, not a model anymore

On July 27, 2011, the Chinese Defense Ministry, officially announced it was refitting the vessel for “scientific research, experiment and training.”

On August 10, 2011, the Varyag began sea trials. An RSIS analyst had noted that China still has a long way to go to make it operational, but was determined to do so On August 15, 2011, the Varyag docked in Dalian, completing its first four-day sea trial. On November 29, 2011, the carrier left port for its second set of trials. The carrier is expected to be handed over to the PLAN in 2012.

December 8, 2011- the Shi Lang photographed by Digiglobe in the Yellow Sea….


As she stands today

Therefore, she has put to sea. A major accomplishment for hulk 26-years under construction that has been in 3 or 4 owners, depending on how you look at it.

However, she has no airgroup and no offensive weapons systems. The two Type 1030 CIWS and the 4 FL-3000 (18 Cell Missile system) batteries installed are for self-defense. With the fall through of the SU-33 deal from Russia, China does not have any operational carrier-based planes to fly from the ship when she does become operational. However, their J-15 is making fast progress and is expected to become operational around 2016. A number of J-11 (Su-30MK2 rip off) is available to China in the interim. A multi-role fighter-bomber and air superiority aircraft, which can also be used in the maritime strike role, the J-11, has an operational radius of around 1500 km, and is equipped with an inflight refueling facility extending their radius by another 500 km. Although normally configured for conventional operations, the J-11 could provide China with a high-performance nuclear-capable strike aircraft.

So you see the 5-year plan. What must happen is that the first batch of Chinese carrier pilots will have to be trained from the now-operational carrier and then transition to the J-15. Expect it.

What’s the big concern?

China now has their first carrier, their USS Langley, and is playing around with it.

In Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaiian Islands, with 34 planes on her flight deck, May 1928.

The little old Langley, a converted coaler, started US Naval aviation. In January 1923, Langley had begun flight operations and tests in the Caribbean Sea for carrier landings. In June, she steamed to Washington, DC, to give a demonstration at a flying exhibition before civil and military dignitaries. She commenced training along the Atlantic coast and Caribbean, which carried her through the end of the year. In 1924, Langley participated in more maneuvers and exhibitions, and spent the summer at Norfolk for repairs and alterations; she departed for the west coast late in the year and arrived San Diego, California on 29 November to join the Pacific Battle Fleet. For the next 12 years, she operated off the California coast and Hawaii engaged in training fleet units, experimentation, pilot training, and tactical-fleet problems.

Within 17-years of the USS Langley coming down the ways, the US Navy had 7 operational combat-capable carriers, more than 500 experienced and active naval carrier aviators, and almost 1000-planes. With these, they fought, and largely won, the first year of World War 2 in the Pacific.

It very well may be 1923 in China right now.

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About laststandonzombieisland

Let me introduce myself. I am a bit of a conflict junkie. I am fascinated by war and warfare, assassination, personal protection and weaponry ranging from spud guns and flame throwers to thermonuclear bombs and Soviet-trained Ebola monkeys. In short, if it’s violent or a tool to create violence it is kind of my thing. I have written a few thousand articles on the dry encyclopedia side for such websites as Guns.com, University of Guns, Outdoor Hub, Tac-44, History Times, Big Game Hunter, Glock Forum, Firearms Talk.com, and Combat Forums; as well as for print publications like England Expects, and Strike First Strike Fast. Several magazines such as Sea Classics, Military Historian and Collector, Mississippi Sportsman and Warship International have carried my pieces. Additionally I am on staff as a naval consultant and writer for Eye Spy Intelligence Magazine. Currently I am working on several book projects including an alternative history novel about the US-German War of 1916, and a biography of Southern gadfly and soldier of fortune Bennett Doty. My first novel, about the coming zombie apocalypse was released in 2012 by Necro Publications and can be found at Amazon.com as was the prequel, Chimera-44. I am currently working on book two of that series: "Pirates of the Zombie Coast." In my day job I am a contractor for the U.S. federal government in what could best be described as the ‘Force Protection’ field. In this I am an NRA-certified firearms, and less-than-lethal combat instructor.

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