BEIJING China may be ready to launch its first aircraft carrier in 2011, Chinese military and political sources said on Thursday, a year ahead of U.S. military analysts' expectations.
Analysts expect China to use its first operational aircraft carrier to ensure the security of its oil supply route through the Indian Ocean and near the disputed Spratly Islands, but full capability is still some years away.
"The period around July 1 next year to celebrate the (Chinese Communist) Party's birthday is one window (for launch)," one source with ties to the leadership told Reuters, requesting anonymity because the carrier programme is one of China's most closely guarded secrets.
The Defense Ministry spokesman's office declined to comment.
The possible launch next year of the ex-Soviet aircraft carrier 'Varyag' for training, and testing technology, will be one step toward building an operating aircraft carrier group, analysts said.
The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence estimates the Varyag will be launched as a training platform by 2012, and China will have an operational domestically built carrier after 2015.
Andrew Erickson and Andrew Wilson of the U.S. Naval College wrote that it was "conceivable that carrier-relevant research, development, and even production ... could proceed with a rapidity that might surprise Western analysts."
China, which would be the third Asian country to have a carrier after India and Thailand, needs hardware, software and pilot training.
"The acquisition of a carrier doesn't equate to the acquisition of a capability -- the ability to use it effectively -- the latter involving a process that can take decades," said Robert Karniol, a veteran defense analyst based in Canada.
The 300-meter (1,000-foot) Varyag is undergoing refit at a state-run shipyard in northeastern city Dalian, sources said.
A Chinese firm bought the then-engineless Varyag from Ukraine in 1998 for $20 million, planning to convert it to a floating casino in Macau, but the Chinese military then bought the vessel.
Chinese air force pilots have yet to master takeoffs and landings from carriers. They have been undergoing training, but have far fewer flying hours than their U.S. peers.
"They must realize that their learning curve will be costly in terms of blood and treasure," Erickson and Wilson wrote.
"The Varyag will allow us to familiarize ourselves with aircraft carrier tactics of war," one Chinese military source said.
The United States and China's neighbors are nervous about how China could use its growing navy, and speeding up preparations for an aircraft carrier group could add to those jitters.
"Just the prospect of China building aircraft carriers has already made neighbors uneasy," former Taiwan deputy defense minister Lin Chong-Pin said in an interview.
China has refused to rule out the use of force to unify with Taiwan, a self-ruled island over which Beijing claims sovereignty. Tensions between the two sides have eased in recent years.
In March, China announced a 7.5 percent increase in its 2010 military budget to about $78.6 billion. But Washington suspects Chinese spending to be double that figure.
China is seeking to buy ship-borne Su-33 jets from Russia and is working on a variant of its own J-10.
The Varyag will be based in the southern province of Hainan.
(Additional reporting by Sabrina Mao; Editing by Chris Buckley and Daniel Magnowski)