Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Evolving World Power Balance: China's first aircraft carrier starts sea trials

Chinese aircraft carrier Shi-Lang - artist's impression - pennant number 83

She was known as Riga when her keel was laid down in Nikolayev (Ukraine SSR) in 1985, to be the second ship in the Admiral Kuznetsov class. She was launched in 1988, and renamed Varyag in 1990, as Riga was in the process of becoming a foreign city. Construction stopped by 1992, with the ship structurally complete but without equipment or weapons.

With the dissolution of the USSR, the Ukraine became the owner, but lacked the money and expertise to proceed. The Varyag rusted for several years and then was stripped. In early 1998, she lacked engines, a rudder, and much of her operating systems.

It was purchased from the Ukraine at auction for US$20 million by Chong Lot Travel Agency, believed to be acting as a proxy for the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). At the time Chong Lot stated that the ship would become a floating entertainment center and casino in Macau.

As expected, Macau wasn't to be the final destination, though it would be interesting if the old Portuguese naval center would become an important base for the PLAN. In 2005, the Varyag ended up at a dry dock in Dalian, home to the PLA Dalian Naval Academy. There, China's first batch of carrier aviators began training in 2008, undergoing a four-year course.

The Chinese have been in touch with Russian naval construction firms, and may have purchased plans and technology for equipment installed in the Kuznetsov. Until last year, progress was slow. On June 8, 2011 the chief of China's General Staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) confirmed that China's first aircraft carrier was under construction. On the morning of August 10 the ship began her first sea trials.

Under the PLAN the carrier will bear the highly symbolic name of Shi Lang (施琅). Shī Láng; 1621-1696) was a Ming-Qing admiral. He was commander-in-chief of the Manchu fleets which destroyed the power of the Zheng family and conquered Formosa (Taiwan) in 1681.

Observers predict that she will call Sanya Naval Base on China's southern Hainan Island her mother port. If that proves true, the carrier will be assigned to the PLA Navy's South China Sea Fleet, likely sailing back and forth from the Persian Gulf to help secure Beijing's crude oil shipping line.

But besides a defensive role in protecting the vital routes for raw materials, a new offensive capability is created, projecting Chinese power. Taiwanese, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai and Australians will have to re-think their regional positions.

But of course it is the US that face the main challenge. In the short term the Chinese carrier is more a symbol for the Chinese than a menace to the US. This does not mean that real menaces do no come in other forms: the Americas should worry about their own carriers vulnerability as more of the Chinese  Dong Feng 21D carrier killer missiles (anti-ship ballistic missile / ASBM) are deployed and as rumors of a tactical naval nuclear missile start to be whispered.

Anyway, it's been some time now since history did not end: the Pacific is no longer an American lake and more is in the pipeline, e.g. in the form of a Chinese designed nuclear powered aircraft carrier. Furthermore Beijing's naval ambitions are now global, no ocean should be considered off-limits and the prospect of Chinese naval bases abroad should be faced seriously.

The years of a single super power are going away fast!

Naval Ensign of the People's Republic of China - the PLAN flag will become an ever more common sight in the world's oceans and ports - 中国人民解放军海军军旗
Dong Feng DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) on parade in Peking - 东风-21中程弹道导弹
She has been seen at sea: DigitalGlobe, a commercial US satellite company, says the Shi-Lang has been photographed on December 8th off the Chinese coast by one of the company's satellites, image below:

Satellite image of the Chinese aircraft carrier Shi-Lang off the PRC's coast (c) DigitalGlobe
Update, Sept 25, 2012: it's official, the Riga is now in service as the Liaoning (辽宁号航空母舰 - hull number: 16), after the province of the same name. Only the Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark fighters are missing now. The J-15 carrier-based combat plane was adapted from the Sukhoi Su-33.

Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark fighter (歼-15) - prototype in flight - notice the hook for carrier landings