Carrier Signal: China’s Naval Aviation
In 1998, the former Russian carrier Varyag was bought by a Chinese firm for use as a “tourist attraction.” Nobody believed that, and by 2005, she was in drydock for secret refits. Still, a carrier needs planes. Near the end of October 2006, Russia’s Kommersant newspaper revealed that Russian state-run weapon exporter Rosoboronexport was in negotiations with China to deliver SU-33s, a variant of Sukhoi’s SU-27 Flanker with forward canards, foldings wings, an arrester hook, a reinforced structure, and other modifications that help it deal with carrier operations and landings.
By 2009, Russian media were reporting a breakdown of negotiations, citing low order numbers and past pirating of Russian SU-27/30 designs. China built on that prior piracy to produce its SU-33 look-alike “J-15,” with the reported assistance of an SU-33 prototype bought from the Ukraine. It’s now 2012, and China’s myriad deceptions have served their purpose. They don’t have an active carrier force yet, but they’re very close.
A Carrier for China
The PLA Navy has made contradictory statements regarding its wish to have an operational aircraft carrier, but most expert observers believed they were working on a program to do so. Those beliefs were correct.
China’s Dalian Shipyard refitted the 65,000t ex-Soviet Navy aircraft carrier Varyag (previously Riga), which the “Chong Lot Travel Agency” acquired from the Ukraine in 1998 for $20 million. She was in in extremely poor condition, as one might expect of any ship after a decade or more of serious neglect. Indeed, she spent 16 months under commercial tow circling in the Black Sea, while negotiations proceeded with the nervous Turks to allow her to be towed through the critical Bosporus Strait. The Turks didn’t have anything against China, per se. They were just afraid that the ship’s size and condition would result in a shipping disaster. After a long trip, Varyag arrived in China in 2002, and entered drydock in 2005.
China’s assurances that the Varyag was destined to be a floating hotel were ludicrous on their face, and very soon they were sharply at variance with the ship’s observable paint job. Nobody with a gram of sense ever believed the cover story. The real question was whether the Chinese believed they could bring Varyag up to operational status, or whether they planned to just use the ship as a learning platform, in preparation for their own construction efforts later.
The carrier was commissioned in 2012 as the Liaoning, and there is every indication that China plans to make it fully operational. Weapons have been fitted, including close-in gatling guns and short-range air defense missiles.
Real operation, however, requires planes.
In October 2006, SinoDefence.com reported that China would spend $100 million to buy 2 Su-33 fighters from Komsomolsk-on-Amur Production Association for ‘trial and evaluations,’ with delivery expected in 2007-08. Reports claimed there was also an agreed option for another 12 Su-33 fighters, with the potential for the deal to grow to 48 SU-33s and $2.5 billion.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out that this was simply a ploy to rip off Russia’s design. Russia backed out of the sale, and tried to negotiate a much larger up front commitment from China.
Unfortunately for the Russians, the Chinese acquired an SU-33 prototype from the Ukraine, married it to their past experience copying SU-27/30 fighters, and created the “J-15″ instead.
China landed a J-15 on the Liaoning in late 2012, opening the way to a true naval aviation force. With 2 more locally-built carriers underway, that force can be expected to grow quickly. American naval observers keep stressing the decade-long amount of time required to train and field an effective carrier force, but China has a wealth of engineering talent, and a large aviation force to draw on. Don’t be surprised if the Chinese beat American predictions by a comfortable margin.
Reports and Key Events
2009 – 2012
Nov 25/12: China announces the 1st at-sea landing of a J-15 aboard the Liaoning. “We have done all these test flights from the very beginning, and finally we mastered the key skills for the landing of carrier-borne aircraft,” says People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deputy commander Vice-Admiral Zhang Yongyi. China People [in Chinese] | Xinhua | Al Jazeera | India’s Economic Times.
J-15 carrier landing
April 25/11: J-15. Pictures of China’s new “J-15 Flying shark” carrier-borne fighter are published in China’s state-owned Global Post. Its uncanny resemblance to Russia’s Su-33 is noted by all and sundry. Defense Tech.
June 4/10: J-15. Russian sources are quoted in RIA Novosti as saying that China will have a hard time duplicating the SU-33. Col. (Ret.) Igor Korotchenko, a member of the Defense Ministry’s Public Council
“The Chinese J-15 clone is unlikely to achieve the same performance characteristics of the Russian Su-33 carrier-based fighter, and I do not rule out the possibility that China could return to negotiations with Russia on the purchase of a substantial batch of Su-33s… Korotchenko said China was unlikely to solve technical problems related to the design of the folding wings and to develop a reliable engine for the aircraft, although the first J-15 prototype reportedly made its maiden flight on August 31, 2009, powered by Chinese WS-10 turbofan engines.”
In the end, they seem to do fine. Note that the picture accompanying the article is actually a Chinese J-10 land-based fighter.
Dec 17/09: China’s carrier, which is reportedly known as the Shi Lang (after the Chinese general who took possession of Taiwan in 1681), now has a radar mast. The ship is under guard, but it can be seen from a nearby highway, painted in the gray shade used by the Chinese navy. Many workers can be seen on the ship, with lots of visible change to the superstructure, and material is seen going in and out. The Chinese have reportedly been in touch with Russian naval construction firms, and may have purchased plans. StrategyPage adds:
“Late last year, China announced that its first class of carrier aviators had begun training at the Dalian Naval Academy. The naval officers will undergo a four year course of instruction to turn them into fighter pilots capable of operating off a carrier. China already has an airfield, in the shape of a carrier deck, built at an inland facility.”
March 20/09: Chinese defense minister Liang Guanglie reportedly tells visiting Japanese Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada that:
“Among the big nations only China does not have an aircraft carrier. China cannot be without an aircraft carrier forever… China’s navy is currently rather weak, we need to develop an aircraft carrier.”
The Agence France Presse report adds that earlier in March 2009, China Daily quoted Admiral Hu Yanlin as saying:
“Building aircraft carriers is a symbol of an important nation. It is very necessary… China has the capability to build aircraft carriers and should do so.”
March 13/09: Jane’s Defence Weekly reports that negotiations are continuing for the SU-33 sale:
“Negotiations for the sale of Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-capable combat aircraft to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are still continuing with both sides interested in coming to a final agreement, Russian industry sources have told Jane’s . “Previous reports that these discussions are at an end or that the ‘contract has been cancelled’ are incorrect,” said a Russian source close to the programme.”
March 10/09: The Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper reports that Russia is refusing to sell China SU-33 jets, citing past piracy of the design for its SU-27 fighters. China initially sought 2 SU-33s for its “trial basis” order, which are a modified variant of the SU-27. Subsequent negotiations reportedly raised the “trial” order to 14 of the 50 aircraft China said it wanted, but that was not enough to remove the basic problem.
In 1995, China received a license for the production of 200 Su-27SK fighters; that agreement was later terminated at 95 planes. China cushioned the blow by ordering a total of 110 SU-30MK2s between 1999-2003, but they are now producing a “J-11B” fighter that appears to be an SU-27 with Chinese radar and avionics, and Chinese WS-10 engines in place of Russian Lyulka AL-31s. The issue was reportedly raised at the 13th meeting of the Russian-Chinese Committee for Military Cooperation in December 2008, without resolution.
If Russia believes that its SU-33s are being ordered so they can be cloned by the Chinese, creating a future with no further orders from China, and a cheaper version of their weapons offered for global export, then their lack of interest in a deal is understandable.
Note that concerns are also being raised in Russia around ongoing production of Russian-derived Cold War era designs by Eastern European countries, which could create future diplomatic incidents. Pravda report.
2001 – 2008
Dec 31/08: More carriers. Japan’s Asahi Shimbun:
“China will begin construction of the country’s first domestically produced aircraft carriers in Shanghai next year, with an eye to completing two mid-sized carriers by 2015, military and shipbuilding sources said. Beijing is also expected to complete work on a never-finished former Soviet aircraft carrier moored in the northeastern port of Dalian, to provide training for carrier-based pilots and crew. The two 50,000- to 60,000-ton carriers will rely on conventional propulsion systems, not nuclear power…
According to sources close to Shanghai municipal authorities, one of the world’s largest shipbuilding facilities was completed this fall on Changxingdao island at the mouth of the Changjiang river near Shanghai. One of the four docks there is for construction of the aircraft carriers, they said.”
See also: Information Dissemination.
Dec 23/08: China’s defence ministry spokesman Huang Xueping discusses that country’s carrier plans during a rare press conference, called to announce the dispatch of Chinese warships to the Somali coast on anti-piracy patrols. When asked about rumors of a Chinese aircraft carrier, he said that:
“An aircraft carrier is a symbol of overall national strength and a symbol of the competitiveness of the nation’s naval force… The Chinese government will take into overall account the relevant factors and seriously consider the relevant issue.”
See: Agence France Presse, via Defense News.
Oct 24/08: Jane’s report:
“Russian sources have now told Jane’s that under the current proposal the Russian in-service Su-33 would be put back into production and the PLAN would acquire 14 of this type to be used for the training phase of the programme…
“The next step will be to modernise the Su-33, which was first designed in the late 1980s, with a new set of state-of-the-art onboard systems,” a KnAAPO representative told Jane’s on the eve of the biennial Air Show China in late October. “What this new aeroplane is most likely to be is a combination Su-33 airframe with a radar, avionics and cockpit instrumentation that is a ‘developed’ configuration based on the Su-30MK2, and this will be the PLAN’s operational version.”
Sept 19/08: Indian Express cites a small article in a recent issue of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily, which announced that the first batch of 50 pilots cadets have been inducted at the Dalian Naval Academy to undergo training on ‘ship borne aircraft flight.’ The first batch of pilots undergoing training on ‘basic theories of surface ship and flight’ will reportedly graduate from the academy in 4 years.
Nov 1/06: Russian news agency RIA Novosti describes SU-33 negotiations as “at a preliminary stage.” That same article also noted that Alexander Denisov, who headed Russia’s delegation at Airshow China 2006, said that Russia is ready to help China design an aircraft carrier if asked.
The ship couldn’t go through Suez because she can’t move under her own power, so she was towed out of the Mediterranean and around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Maritime Journal.
Nov 1/01: The Varyag’s engineless hulk has passed through the Bosporus Strait’s tight curves and powerful currents, after finally getting permission from Turkey. The Turks had been concerned about a major shipping disaster, which had held up passage for 15-16 months.
The ship was towed through without incident, but it took 6 hours, instead of the usual 1.5 hours expected by a normal ship like an oil tanker. CNN.
Additional Readings & Sources
- SinoDefence.com – Varyag Aircraft Carrier
- Google lets you take a look at the Varyag yourself! Or you could, while it was in dock…
- VaryagWorld.com. An enthusiast site that trace the history of the Varyag and continues to follow developments related to the ship. Lots of pictures and links.
- Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security (IPRIS) – Using BRIC to build at sea: The Brazil-China aircraft carrier agreement and shifting naval power [PDF]. By Kai Thaler.
- Russia’s United Aircraft Corp. – Su-33 [in Russian]
- MILAVIA – Sukhoi Su-33 “Navy Flanker”.
- Sinodefence.com – Su-27SK/UBK Air Superiority Fighter Aircraft. The Jian-11 Multirole Fighter Aircraft is their copy.
- South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo (Dec 17/10) – Documents Confirm China’s Aircraft Carrier Plans
- Wall Street Journal (Dec 4/10) – China Clones, Sells Russian Fighter Jets
- Russia’s RIA Novosti (June 4/10) – Russia downplays Chinese J-15 fighter capabilities. “China bought an Su-33 prototype earlier from Ukraine, and used it to develop the new aircraft.”
- China Air and Naval Power blog (May 7/09) – The story behind the stories for Varyag. Examines the Ukranian-Chinese relationship. Heavy on speculation, but interesting.
- Agence France Presse (March 23/09) – China tells Japan it wants aircraft carrier
- Information Dissemination – PLAN – Review of 2008. PLAN = People’s Liberation Army Navy. Yes, they really call it that.
- Norman Polmar (Oct 15/08) – Is China Moving Toward a Carrier? “There is no question: The Chinese Navy is seeking to develop a carrier capability; but there are many, many questions about how that goal will be achieved.”
- RIA Novosti (November 1/06) – China intends to buy Russia’s SU-33 fighters
- SinoDefence.com (Oct 24/06) – China to Buy Su-33 Fighter from Russia
- Kommersant (Oct 23/06) – Russia to Deliver Su-33 Fighters to China
- StrategyPage (May 30/06) – Naval Air: The Varyag Mystery Deepens
- Jane’s (Aug 12/05) – Is China building a carrier?