Thursday, April 19, 2012

Shi Lang, China's first aircraft carrier

The People's Liberation Army Navy (yes that is their real name) have begun sea tests of what may be their most powerful conventional warship. Although not officially confirmed, it is expected to be named Shi Lang, who was a successful Chinese admiral in the Ming and Qing Dynasties and led the invasion and conquest of the Kingdom of Tungning on the island of Taiwan in 1683. Which I might find worrisome if I lived on Taiwan today.

The keel for this ship was laid down all the way back in 1985 and was being built for the Soviet Navy as an Admiral Kuznetsov-class multi role aircraft carrier. Originally known as the Riga, she was later renamed the Varyag (Varangian) after a famous Russian Navy Cruiser. By 1992 all work on the ship had ceased, it was laid up and stripped. The ship was never finished by the Soviets and became the property of the Ukraine after the breakup of the Soviet Union. At this point, the "ship" lacked its engines, rudder, arresting cables and many other important systems.

Satellite photos of the Varyag undergoing refit

How did the the Naval Arm of the People's Republic of China obtain an aircraft carrier from the Ukraine? Well, the answer is more convoluted than you might think.
It started in 1998 when the Trade Minister of Ukraine announced the the Varyag had been sold for $20 million USD to Chong Lot Travel Agency, Ltd. Chong Lot has been described as a small travel company that is owned by Chin Luck (Holdings) Company of Hong Kong. According to the US Naval College Review, four of Chin Luck's six board members live in Yantai, China, which is the site of a major Chinese Navy shipyard. They also state that the chairman of the Chin Luck Co. former career military officer with the People's Liberation Army. What a curious coincidence.

But back to the deal. So this small travel company from Hong Kong buys a huge warship (well, some it anyway) and says that they are going to turn it into a floating luxury hotel and casino. Awesome, right? Their plan is to tow the hulk from the Black Sea through the Suez Canal and all the way to the port of Macao, a small semi autonomous island off southern China. The buyers at Chong Lot were told prior to this that the the Varyag would not be given a permit to berth in the harbor of Macao for the refit. But the sale and tow of the ship continued.

Varyag under tow

Problems continued to arise. In 2000, a Dutch tugboat company hired a Filipino crew to tow the ship to Macao. Then Turkey refused passage through the Bosporus Straits, allegedly because the ship posed a danger to the bridges and navigation of this important waterway. The hulk was then towed in circles for 16 months, while the PRC negotiated with (bribed) the Turkish officials. It is rumored that the decision was reversed when the Chinese delegation offered to let Chinese tourists visit Turkey and give it an infusion of tourist money. Call me cynical, but I imagine their were some under the table exchanges as well. At this point I asked myself: Why would the Chinese government negotiate with Turkey for a privately held Hong Kong casino boat? Well, they wouldn't. Obviously, all the "plans" for the Varyag were a sham and it was being acquired as a warship, under the control of the PRC military, from day one.

The vessel transited the straits in November 2001. In transit, the Varyag was towed by eleven tugs and three pilots, and accompanied by another 13 ships.

On November 3, Varyag was caught in a force 9 gale and broke adrift while passing the Greek island of Skyros. One tug managed to attach a line to the ship late in the day, but high winds severely hampered efforts by two other tugs to secure the ship. On November 6, Aries Lima, a sailor from the tug Haliva Champion, died after a fall while attempting to reattach the tow lines. On November 7, the hulk was taken back under tow and progress resumed. Since the Suez Canal does not allow passage ships without power, Varyag was towed the long way. Through the Strait of Gibraltar, down the west coast of Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean and through the Straits of Malacca. At 6 knots. For 15,200 nautical miles. A slow boat to China, indeed. The future Shi Lang docked at Dalian Shipyards, in China on March 3, 2002. At this point China was continuing the farce that the Varyag had been acquired for use as a casino and hotel. But when the Macao authorities awarded casino licenses, Chong Lot was not included. And the Varyag was sitting at the dock hundreds of miles away in a major military shipyard.

While designated an aircraft carrier by the West, the design of The Admiral Kuznetsov- class is different from the carriers of the West in several ways. First off, they are called Heavy Aircraft Carrying Cruisers in Soviet military terminology. They were designed with a vertical launch missile system right in the middle of the deck to fire twelve of the huge P-700 Granit supersonic anti ship missiles. These have the NATO reporting name of Shipwreck and can carry either a 1600 pound explosive warhead or a 500 kiloton tactical nuclear warhead. These are carrier sinking missiles and that is the primary function of the class- to destroy the capital ships and large carrier groups of the West, especially the US Navy. In larger part the class was designed to protect and support the missile subs and missile capable aircraft. Fixed wing flight operation are mostly limited to air superiority missions, as the Su-33 Flankers have only a limited air ground attack capability. Unlike US carriers, which place a premium on long range strike of enemy vessels and ground targets. Like other carriers, several helicopters would be carried and part of their mission would be to carry out anti submarine operations.

In the summer of 2005, the Varyag was moved to a dry dock and the serious work began. Scaffolding was built and the hull sandblasted. The island was given a coat of red marine primer to treat the degraded and corroded steel. The anti-ship missile tubes have been plugged and will not be used, thus freeing up more internal space for hangar or storage use. Russia reportedly plans to do the same when it modernizes the Varyag's sister Kuznetsov. Sensors that have been observed or expected are the Active Electronically Scanned Array(AESA) and Sea Eagle radar. Weapons observed onboard are the Type 1030 CIWS, and the FL-3000N missile system. However, it takes more than a big flat ship to make for effective Naval Aviation. To that end, the Chinese have built a scale training facility near Huangjia Lake in the southwestern suburbs of Wuhan at the Wuhan Naval Research site. So they have been practicing simulated carrier landings there since 2009. For those who worry a great deal about the economic and military rise of China, take heart. This ship will never be the equal of US carriers. For example, the Soviet Navy at the height of its power only carried 13 Su-33s onboard, although there is room for up to 33, at the expense of other craft, for a total of about 41 craft, well below a USN Nimitz-class. The air wing was rounded out with 5 Su-25 "Grach/Frogfoot" close air support jets and 24 Ka-27 utility helicopters. For aviation facilities, the class uses what is called STOBAR. It stands for Short Take Off But Arrested Recovery. The landing aircraft are stopped via one of four arrester cables and the take off area has a 13 degree "ski jump" bow. While the capabilities of the Admiral Kuznetsov-class are limited in some areas (like all ships) keep in mind that the Shi Lang may not share all those limitations. The Chinese have spent a great deal of time working on her for one thing. And while the Soviet/Russian Su-33s (the Naval version of the Su-27 "Flanker" Air Superiority fighter) are not gifted strike aircraft, it is entirely possible that they could be modified to perform the mission and what we might call F/A versions have already been designed. The PLAN has no doubt taken notice of the this as well.


It has taken the PLAN a long time to get the Shi Lang to sea and they still have a long way to go if they plan on making it a viable war ship. But it certainly represents a big step forward for the Chinese military in terms of technology, strategy and scope. I would be not be pleased if I lived the in Philippines.

Edit-- 10/25/12-- the PLA Navy has commissioned the ship under the name "Liaoning"