Concerns over China’s new aircraft carrier - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 15 August 2011

Concerns over China’s new aircraft carrier

(Left) The Varyag after its return from its first sea trials. It was accompanied by the large vessel, marked 88, during the five-day voyage in the vicinity of Dalian.

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 16th Aug 11

China’s first aircraft carrier returned to its home base of Dalian on Sunday after a debut voyage of five days. The Chinese media describes the jubilation of a crowd at the dockside that, after witnessing the giant vessel emerge from a thick fog three kilometres away, set off firecrackers to welcome home the most keenly watched warship in the resurgent People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLA(N).

This is the vessel formerly known as Varyag, a massive, 58,500 tonne, 300-metre-long Admiral Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier that was being built in Ukraine when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Strapped for funds, Ukraine put the semi-complete vessel up for auction in 1998; a Chinese company, Chong Lot Travel Agency, bought it for US $20 million claiming that they wanted it for a floating casino in Macau. Instead it docked at Dalian, was painted PLA(N) grey, and refurbished over a decade into a functional aircraft carrier.

But experts are sceptical about its combat capabilities. Ruslan Pukhov of the Moscow Strategy and Technologies Analysis Centre says the vessel was obsolete even before it was purchased. China’s Defence Ministry spokesman, Geng Yansheng, says the ex-Varyag will be used for “scientific research, experiment and training.”

Nor has the PLA(N) displayed confidence by planning the sea trials so close by the Dalian dockyard. While an “exclusion zone” that China declared in the Yellow Sea and Liaoning Bay led to breathless speculation that the PLA(N) might include simulated aircraft landings during the sea trials, no such trials were conducted.

Experience remains the PLA(N)’s bottleneck. Despite possessing an aircraft carrier and a fighter capable of operating from it (the Shenyang J-15 “Flying Shark”, evidently reverse-engineered from Russia’s Sukhoi-33 fighter), the PLA(N) remains to develop the specialised skills needed for aircraft carrier operations. The flight deck of a carrier that is launching aircraft, or recovering them, is an exceptionally busy place, with scores of sailors simultaneously performing crucial and interlinked tasks. Even as fighters are taking off and landing, others are being moved around on the deck, between the hangars and the deck, and being refuelled or replenished with ammunition. Fine judgement is needed to gauge when the sea is too rough for flying operations. There is no place for error; the US Navy lost about 12,000 aircraft and 8,500 airmen between 1949 (when the US Navy started deploying jets in sizeable numbers on aircraft carriers) and 1988 (when accident rates came down to US Air Force levels). While the PLA(N) will enjoy a steeper learning curve, naval aviation experts estimate that it will take at least 5-10 years to achieve proficiency in aircraft carrier combat operations.

In this key area the Indian Navy scores over the PLA(N), having operated aircraft carriers for half a century (the INS Vikrant, India’s first carrier, was commissioned on 4th Mar 61). India currently has one functional aircraft carrier, the INS Viraat, bought from the Royal Navy in 1987. A second, the 44,000 tonne INS Vikramaditya (the former Admiral Gorshkov) will arrive from Russia by 2012-13. Meanwhile, Cochin Shipyard is constructing a 40,000 vessel, still unnamed, which is referred to as the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC). This is likely to be followed by more vessels, in the 60,000 tonne category.

But there is concern within the US Navy, which has underwritten peace in the Asia-Pacific since World War II. It is now a declining force with just half as many battleships as it had during the Cold War. Especially worrying are its declining aircraft carrier numbers: down from 15 aircraft carrier battle groups (this includes a flotilla of smaller warships that screen an aircraft carrier from enemy submarines, aircraft, missiles and mines) at the end of the 1980s to just 11 today. “We would welcome any kind of explanation that China would like to give for needing this kind of equipment,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a press conference last week.

The answer has come from the Chinese media and bloggers, who are calling for the new vessel to be named the “Shi Lang” after a Qing dynasty admiral who conquered Taiwan in 1681. Taiwan is taking China seriously: the Taipei Aerospace and Defense Technology Exhibition that opened in Taipei last Thursday featured the Hsiung Feng III, a Taiwanese supersonic missile with a range of 130 kilometers. The missile was displayed in front of a picture of a burning carrier that bears a striking resemblance to the Varyag.

The PLA, however, is doing little to calm fears. In last Friday’s PLA Daily, Guo Jiuanyue wrote, “If we do not have the courage or will to use it to solve territorial disputes, why would we have built it? Are we spending countless money and occupying quite a part of the national budget to build it only for admiring it or scaring the countries that provoke China? If it is necessary, China will use the aircraft carrier and other kinds of battleships to solve disputes. That is natural and logical.”


  1. Col. Shukla -

    As you know, the lack of carrier operations experience will not be much of a showstopper for the Chinese. They plan for the long term. They have have the patience to plan well for the really long term, and willpower to execute that plan. The Varyag is merely a test ground.. the successors of the Varyag, in the next 20 years or so, will be the true fruits of their navy's modernization.
    As for the J-15, well, so true. You might have read yesterday that our neighbors from Rawalpindi gave the Chinese access to the stealth chopper used in Op Geronimo, including "skin" samples..
    But the point, to quote Deng, is "It does not matter whether the cat is black or white, so long as it catches the mice"...

    They have an "indigenous carrier borne heavy fighter and are rumored to have got the blue prints for the cancelled Ulyanovsk class carriers from the Ukrainians...

    So, we need to wake up and read the signs of the times and prepare accordingly.. or else another 1962 may happen, despite our claims that we are prepared..

  2. Ajai ji,

    While I trust you and your sources, kindly elaborate what is this statement based on? Any official Chinese press release for instance? "speculation that the PLA(N) might include simulated aircraft landings during the sea trials, no such trials were conducted."....

    Also just curious, how are u translating PLA daily stories? If I recall, u know Mandarin, right ?

  3. Varyag structure will be problematic for maintenance crews of PLAN. Huge resource - manpower and funds will be consumed per day to keep this aircraft carrier operational across South China Sea To reach optimum operational capability, consumption of manpower on maintenace and rectification activities on sea will diminish combat capability. Power projection through carrier based air asset is no match against the navies like Indian Navy who enjoy shore based long endurance air power supplemented with carrier based aircrafts. We shall not go by the hulk and massiveness of Varyag, and consider its effectiveness in sea denial. This is a poor investment done by China-- indeed happiness for India

  4. Is it 300 mt or foot?

  5. We have to keep our guard up.Geography favours us,particularly on land which is suitable for defence.BUT,the Chinese are unpredictable and usually spring up something at a least expected time and place.The Chinese think in terms of decades and eternal vigilance is what we will have to maintain.

  6. @Anonymous 11:08

    It's 300 metres. Thanks for pointing that out.

    @ Deshdaaz

    No official sources said that there would be simulated landings... but an article in People's Daily did. That is why I cited speculation. If an official had said it, it would be an announcement, not speculation.

  7. the gall of the Americans. She asks why China needs such carriers. Well I ask, why does the US need 11 Carrier battle groups? why should not other countries also develop MIL-IND complexes? Sure, the chinese stink, but the Americans stink worse.

  8. @Ajai sir

    every big nation with big shoreline and equally huge EEZ has a right to have a aircraft carrier. What matters is the intention, while US and India both field aircraft carriers as power projection tool, China prima facie wants it as a threat projection tool.

    Its not about how long they take to master carrier operations but the real question is how many more aircraft carriers they plan to have and ultimately use them to bullooy others.


    welcome back

    Looks like you are much enamored by Deng and his statements. Your statement that the ex-Varyag was a bad investment is pretty much wrong.

    It was stripped and shipped as dead hulk, but the Chinese refurbished it with everything from engine/ boilers to radars and this gave them a valuable experience to build a new aircraft carriers, work on 2 which have reported started. Ypu are probably correct about Ulyanovsk class blueprints. So ultimately whatever they learnt from Varyag is going to help them.

    Ultimately it boils down to the intention which my friend in case of Chinese is always murky.


    Joydeep Ghosh

  9. Your falling into the same trap with that 'We have had one for some time so we know how to use them...but they do not'.How long seriously does it take to get it right?.

    If they could get blueprints of ships and planes, do you think getting deck related day to day operational procedures would be an issue?.

    They can only get from strength to strength as they have locally manufactured aircraft capable of operating from this carrier...where is our NLCA??!!.

    With IN till INS Vikram... arrives which can use MiG29K it will have to make do with its accident prone [not even a dozen] Sea Harriers on Viraat.

    Now there's a humungous advantage. :)

  10. The US navy lost 12,000 airplanes between 1949 and 1988? Is that really correct or a misprint. Sounds like a huge number.

  11. @ Joydeep -

    Thank you, thank you for the welcome !! Hope all is well with is you.

    Actually, you will notice that I never said that the Varyag was a "bad investment". What I said was that the Varyag was simply the Chinese getting ready for the real McCoy. What my statement meant is more or less what you are saying... ie, they are learning and will sooner or later have very decent carriers. They also purchased 3 other retired carriers as junk.. one of which now serve as a casino or amusement park or something along those lines! But they have surely learnt a lot before those carriers were put to pasture.

    And yes, I am a fan of Deng. I think he is the one statesman of the last century whose actions and decisions have greatly impacted the world as we know it today... ie, the rise of China. I cant help but wish we had some leader of a third the vision, foresight and ability of Deng. Oh well... one can wish, right? Nothing wrong from learning from the enemy, if we can..

    There is an excellent, very recently published book by Kissinger called "On China". You may want to read it...

    Also, to the keen observer of China, there is no murkiness at all in their actions. They are simply going by their proverb " There cannot be 2 tigers on 1 mountain" .... and also the sense national destiny is very deep in them, ably strengthened by state run propaganda. One can find interesting PC games in China, where the"brave" PLA soldiers shoot rebellious Tibetans and so forth.

  12. For the next ten years, what the US propaganda says and what Chinese are prepared to admit; this aircraft carrier in the words of Mao Tse Tung, is a`"Paper Tiger`.

    If you want to believe anything, then believe the Russians who initially built it. According to them it was obsolete when purchased in 1999. Chinese unable to refurbish it with latest technology did whatever they could internally. It is the latter that makes it paper tiger. Because, the reverse engineered technology, that too not from other nation`s aircraft carriers but from generally available sources like Radio Shack etc. makes it a sitting duck.

    You wish to know why?

    1. Vietnam is hoping to buy a super powerful wonder weapon "Brahmos` to sink this aircraft carrier from India.

    2. Taiwan is already designed and built a missille not as powerful as "Brahmos`but close enough.

    3. Any other nation who feels threatened can buy Brahmos from India.

    India will have no qualm to supply this wonder weapon in South East Asia as Chinese have helped Pakistan develop their nulcear weapon and supplied all the missiles which Pakistan needs. This is now India`s turn to return the favor.

    If at all this aircraft carrier does quitely reach Indian Ocean with hostility in mind, say in 2020, its life will end very quickly.

    Chinese in next ten years do not have capability to build an unpregnable battle group as the Americans have. If this is missing, then it is a sitting duck.

    There are other battleships, destroyers and submarines Chinese have which could be more menancing than this aircaft carrier, but be not afraid of this somewhat very out of date carrier.

    As for indians, their aircraft carrier is as out of date as Chinese. But it is being refurbished with latest technology which is unavailable to the Chinese. There are reports that even the basic electrical work done without drawings by the Chinese is less than adequate.

    I do belive that Chinese will use this carrier for training purposes and keep it well away from lethal missiles in possession of Taiwan, Vietnam, India etc.

    Hari Sud

  13. Well "writing is on the wall " Better prepare then ignoring fact which may let us down later

  14. Its a test bed for some thing to come up later also like to remind you that it was purchased as junk if the Chinese can do this to junk just imagine what they whould have done with Groskov with was still in better condition. Also with this the PLA(N) has evaluvated the time and the effort required to build such platform also the footprint in the ocean and what changes can be made to decrease the same and there are may other things that it has learned that is vital for them and leathal for us.

  15. In today's networked warfare scenario with heavy dependence on global satellite communications networks and battlefield management IT systems and combat drones, an Aircraft carriers utility is in projecting power beyond territorial boundaries. As such this requires power sources which can keep the battle group on station for unlimited periods of deployment, which in turns translates to nuclear reactor based propulsion, to be of any effective threat to India. Also future wars will feature sophisticated long-range UCAVs and not piloted fighter planes and laser based Anti-Missile defenses. Given such a road-map, I feel, India should devote resources in developing nuclear multi-purpose submarines. During WW2 Japan had submarine designs capable of carrying small number of figher planes inside them. Maybe India can surely develop nuclear submarines which can carry, launch and retrieve long-range UCAVs. Such will be the future wonder weapons of war. Aircraft Carriers although not obsolete in the short term, can only be employed against technologically deficient states, such as Africa, Middle East or ASEAN, certainly not against America, Europe, Japan, Russia and India. Either China is plainly jingoistic or wasting good resources to experiment with an outdated technology, if they are planning to intimidate Americans. Just an understanding of the technology required to land a space-shuttle (flying brick) on an thin air-strip remotely, is enough to discourage anybody from adventurism, to say the least Chinese ASBM is good to scare Indians, but again if Chinese think of overwhelming India by its junk tsunami, it will certainly feel the volcanic pyroclastic flows coming from the otherwise cold Himalayas.

  16. Dear Col. Shukla,

    If you get the time could you update us on the status of our own IAC? The info on the net is outdated and all over the place..It would be very much appreciated and helpful...As always Thank you for your excellent reporting.


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