Analysis: China's aircraft carrier: in name only

Tue Aug 28, 2012 5:57pm EDT

1 of 4. A half-built Chinese-owned aircraft carrier Varyag, which is to be converted into a floating casino in China, is towed and escorted by a flotilla of tugboats and pilot ships past the Leandros Tower built in 419 B.C. on the Bosphorus Straits in Istanbul November 1, 2001.

Credit: Reuters/Fatih Saribas/Files

Related Video

Related Topics

(Reuters) - When Japanese activists scrambled ashore on a disputed island chain in the East China Sea this month, one of China's most hawkish military commentators proposed an uncharacteristically mild response.

Retired Major General Luo Yuan suggested naming China's new aircraft carrier Diaoyu, after the Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. It would demonstrate China's sovereignty over the islands known as the Senkakus in Japanese, he said.

For a notable hardliner, it was one of the least bellicose reactions he has advocated throughout a series of territorial rows that have soured China's ties with its neighbors in recent months.

More typical was General Luo's warning in April that the Chinese navy would "strike hard" if provoked during a dispute with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

One possible reason for General Luo's restraint, military analysts say, is he knows it could be towards the end of the decade before China can actually deploy the new carrier to the disputed islands or any other trouble spot.

Despite public anticipation in China that the carrier -- a refitted, Soviet-era vessel bought from Ukraine -- will soon become the flagship of a powerful navy, defense experts say it lacks the strike aircraft, weapons, electronics, training and logistical support it needs to become a fighting warship.

"There is considerable uncertainty involved, but it could take anything from three to five years," said Carlo Kopp, the Melbourne, Australia based co-founder of Air Power Australia, an independent military think tank.


The refitted carrier, commonly known by its original name, Varyag, returned to Dalian in northeast China last month after its ninth sea trial, according to reports in the official Chinese media.

Some Chinese military researchers had speculated earlier that it would be commissioned into the navy this year.

However, senior People's Liberation Army officers have played down these expectations, making it clear the 60,000-tonne carrier was far from operational readiness and would undergo an extensive schedule of trials and exercises.

"The Great Wall wasn't built in a day," Colonel Lin Bai from the General Armaments Department, was quoted as saying on official government news websites after the Varyag returned to port.

Even when the Varyag is operational, it will only have a limited operational role, mostly for training and evaluation ahead of the anticipated launch of China's first domestically built carriers after 2015, military analysts say.

Reports in unofficial Chinese military blogs and websites say China planned to build these carriers at Jiangnan Shipyard's Chanxing Island shipbuilding base near Shanghai.

However, professional and amateur analysts who study satellite images of Chinese shipyards have been unable to find any evidence of construction.

In its annual report on the Chinese military published earlier this year, the Pentagon said construction may have started on some components of the indigenous carriers.


While an effective carrier may be years away, the program has become a symbol of China's three-decade long build-up that has seen a sprawling land-based force with largely obsolete weapons transformed into a trimmed down, better trained military with modern warships and submarines, strike aircraft and an arsenal of precision missiles.

For the Chinese navy, the addition of carriers has been a top priority as it builds a force capable of deploying far from the Chinese mainland.

Senior commanders have long argued these warships would enhance Beijing's capacity to enforce claims over Taiwan and hotly disputed territories in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

Chinese military analysts have speculated the Varyag will be based at China's new naval base at Yalong on the southern tip of Hainan Island, close to the disputed Spratley and Paracel Island groups.

Carriers and their long-range strike aircraft would also enhance the PLA's capacity to protect key sea lanes that carry China's massive foreign trade, they say.

The commissioning of complex and expensive warships has considerable domestic propaganda value for the ruling Communist Party as a demonstration that China is becoming a top-ranked naval power.

The U.S. Navy's fleet of 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers allow it to control vast areas of the earth's surface and airspace. Only a handful of other nations including Britain, France, India and Russia deploy militarily effective carriers.

"Aircraft carriers are incomparable and cannot be replaced by other weapons," wrote Senior Captain Li Jie, a researcher at the Chinese Naval Research Institute in an August 21 commentary published on websites linked to the Chinese military. "If a big power wants to become a strong power, it has to develop aircraft carriers."


China originally bought the Varyag in 1998 claiming it wanted to turn the ship, which had been stripped of its engines and anything of military value, into a "floating casino". The extended period of trials and preparations for the carrier suggests it has yet to get it on a wartime footing, let alone close the technological gap with more advanced navies.

One major challenge China faces is building a fleet of specialized fixed wing aircraft and helicopters to operate from a carrier's flight deck.

China is working on developing a new strike aircraft, designated the J-15, that appears to be a reverse-engineered version of Russia's Su-33 fighter, according to photographs and video footage published on Chinese websites.

The Su-33 is the Russian jet that would have flown from the carrier if it had joined the Soviet navy.

China already has fully imported and domestically built versions of similar Russian fighters, but experts say adapting flight control software, avionics, weapons, radars and airframes for much more demanding carrier operations is complex and expensive.

"There are a whole range of engineering and operational tasks the Chinese need to work through before they have an aircraft they can reliably operate from a carrier," says Kopp, who studied China's aircraft carrier aviation program for a research paper his think tank published earlier this year.

What appeared to be a mock-up of the J-15 was seen on the Varyag's flight deck when it berthed at Dalian last month.

The Chinese navy is also short of helicopters for anti-submarine warfare, airborne early warning and search and rescue missions, according to Chinese and Western military analysts.


It also will need to develop a strategy and doctrine for deploying and protecting the carrier on missions far from the Chinese coast, they say. U.S. carriers rely on a screen of supporting surface warships, supply vessels and nuclear attack submarines for protection.

China's determination to operate carriers is sending a strong signal about its determination to enforce its territorial claims, analysts say.

In a study on China's maritime strategy published earlier this year, Japan's National Institute of Defence Studies, the Japanese military's policy research arm, said basing China's first aircraft carrier at Hainan would shift the balance of power in an area of intense territorial competition.

"Should the Varyag be deployed to the South China Fleet, it would enable China to demonstrate its dominant naval power to the disputing states, which in the end could trigger a new arms race in the region," the study said.

(Reporting By David Lague; editing by Bill Tarrant)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see
Comments (4)
Josorr wrote:
Well, now we know what the Chinese are doing with all the money we spend at Wal Mart on chinese-made consumer goods.

Aug 31, 2012 10:43am EDT  --  Report as abuse
wheresdarwin wrote:
You mean the principal and interest on trillions of dollars in US debt to China. Public school graduate, yeah?

Aug 31, 2012 2:25pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
matthewslyman wrote:
Did anyone ever seriously believe Chinese assurances that the Varyag would be turned into a floating casino? It seemed unlikely to me at the time, like, something wasn’t quite right about the story (adding casinos to Macau would be like adding sand to Saudi Arabia, or ice to Antarctica; from what I hear).

It may sometimes be said, “all is fair in love and war”; but this method of acquiring military technology (“purchasing” goods and then reverse-engineering them to manufacture them domestically) is dishonourable. Why didn’t the Chinese military just buy the designs from the Russians, instead of going to all the trouble of this deception and towing the empty hulk of the Varyag through the territories of various countries that would have refused passage if the truth had been acknowledged?
The complex web of deception only demonstrates Chinese knowledge that this is morally wrong. If you want something, you should pay for it, and be honest with the financially distressed seller about your purposes in having it.
The incident only reinforces the stereotype of the Chinese advancing their economic interests by stealing the intellectual product of other nations’ hard work, and others sweat and tears.

This incident reminds me of the time a friend convinced me to sell him my car; supposedly because he was especially fond of that type of car, and, he claimed, because he wanted to fit it out with sporty modifications (it was a classic, and certain modifications for that model were quite popular and tasteful). Within three weeks of me selling it to him for a heavily discounted price (based on our friendship, and his supposed purposes); he had sold the car to a third party for a personal profit!
He was afterward less than forthcoming with this information (I only found out after being chased by the police over traffic violation tickets run up by the person he sold the car to, who hadn’t properly registered the vehicle!)
Looking back at that situation, it is hard for me to believe this wasn’t his intention in the first place. He deliberately abused the affection I had for my vehicle, after working to maintain and improve it for several years. He’s generally a good man, and has done some good things for my family (many of them, after this incident), but this act was dishonourable, and it is the one “fly in the ointment” of our friendship. It would have been better for him to take the honest approach (I still would have given him a discount, and he wouldn’t have lost a significant part of my trust or respect.)

Similarly, by taking the honest approach, the Chinese could have shaved five to twenty-five years off the “development” schedule for their “indigenous” carrier designs; and could have avoided stuffing their coffers with excessive quantities of foreign fiat currency that makes them political slaves to the fortunes of their rivals. They would have lost no trust or friendship with their neighbours and natural trading partners. They would have been stronger today in every way, if they had paid the honest price.

Sep 03, 2012 9:23pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.