2011-05-11 (China Military News cited from RSIS and written by Richard A. Bitzinger and Paul T. Mitchell) — China may soon, at long last, get its first aircraft carrier. After years of renovation, the former Soviet carrier Varyag could, as early as this year, take to the sea as the largest and grandest ship in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The Varyag will not be the last carrier in the PLAN; rumours persist that China will likely build four to six aircraft carriers. Yet, while PLAN is on its way to being a carrier-based navy, it will not happen easily or anytime soon.
Enter the Varyag
A casualty of the post-Cold War, the Varyag was laid down in the early 1980s, but construction was halted in 1992 when the vessel was only 70 percent complete. Ukraine, which inherited it after the breakup of the Soviet Union, stripped the ship bare and left it expose to the elements for several years. When the Varyag was finally sold and delivered to China in 2001 – ostensibly to be turned into a Macau casino – it was a rusted shell, without engines, rudder, weapons systems, or electronics. In addition, the process of removing sensitive equipment from the vessel had resulted in damage to its structure, so that even its seaworthiness was questioned.
Undaunted, in mid-2005 the Chinese moved the Varyag to a drydock at the Dalian shipyard in northeast China, where it was painted PLAN grey and its flight deck repaired. Subsequently, engines and electrical systems have been reinstalled and its bridge reconstructed. At the moment, China still lacks carrier-capable aircraft. The PLAN is reportedly interested in the Su-33 fighter jet, which is flown off Russia’s lone remaining carrier, the Admiral Kusnetzov. Rumours abound that it may buy up to 50 Su-33s from Russia or that it has already acquired a couple from Ukraine and is in the process of reverse-engineering the aircraft.
The Varyag will likely be used more as a research and training platform for future Chinese carrier designs and crews, rather than as a fully functioning carrier. At the same time, China is expected to begin construction of several indigenous carriers. At one time, the authoritative Jane’s Information Group speculated that the PLAN could build up to six aircraft carriers, commissioning the first by the middle of this decade.
If and when that happens, it would likely mean the reorientation of the PLAN around Carrier Battle Groups (CVBGs), with the carrier at the heart of a constellation of supporting submarines, destroyers and frigates – an amalgamation of power projection at its foremost. Such CVBGs are among the most impressive instruments of military power, in terms of sustained, far-reaching, and expeditionary offensive force.