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2005: A Turning Point for China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on January 8th, 2006
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Since the early 1980s, when Western military officials began gaining tentative access to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) after decades of isolation, analysts have debated the question of whether China would build aircraft carriers. The events of 2005 have now given us the answer. Yes, China will build aircraft carriers. The debate now shifts to new questions: what type, what size, how many, and how soon?

From the mid-1980s onward foreign analysts could agree only that China was committed to learning as much as possible about aircraft carriers. In 1985 China purchased the former Australian HMAS Melbourne (built in 1943 as Britain’s HMS Majestic), and then in 1998, purchased the former Soviet Pacific Fleet ASW carrier Minsk, and then the Kiev, and then was reported to have purchased the former Soviet/Ukrainian large-deck carrier Varyag 1998 for $20 million.[1] In the meantime China was reported to have purchased Russian plans for the Kiev class and in 1996 reportedly tried to purchase the then just retired French carrier Clemenceau.[2]

 
 
Varyag in 2001: On its way to Dalian Harbor. Source: Internet

In the early 1980s Western visitors reported on China’s interest in simple helicopter carriers and there were attempts by Britain to sell Harrier V/STOL fighters to China at about that same time. In 1997 China did launch the Shichang, a small multi-purpose helicopter carrier based on the British Argus concept.

Despite this activity there was never unanimity among Western observers that China would indeed build its own large CTOL carriers.[3] And to be expected, Chinese sources sought to sow confusion by planting disinformation. An oft-cited Chinese excuse for not building carriers was their cost, a not insubstantial reason for sure.[4] A second set of obstacles revolved around considerations of doctrine and strategy. Chinese naval doctrine was largely defensive through the 1990s, and China’s naval strategic periphery did not extend far enough to justify aircraft carriers.

Chinese disinformation though often farfetched was regularly effective. In 1999 when reports began to emerge that China was seeking to purchase the Varyag, a cover story emerged that it was actually being sought by a company in Macau for the purpose of building a large casino. This cover quickly fell apart when it was later learned that the Macau company was comprised of former Chinese naval officers, and the company then faded as soon as the hulk ended up at the Dalian shipyards.[5] In mid-June 2005 a Chinese Vice Minister responsible for their shipbuilding sector responded to a press conference question by flatly denying that China was at that time building an aircraft carrier in Shanghai, but did not rule out future plans.[6] The U.S. government may also have been a victim of Chinese disinformation activities. The 2003 issue of the Pentagon’s annual report to the U.S. Congress on PLA modernization makes a rather definitive conclusion: "While continuing to research and discuss possibilities, China appears to have set aside indefinitely plans to acquire an aircraft carrier."[7]

It is now clear that this conclusion was at best premature, given the timelines necessary for China, or any country, to build large-size CTOL carriers. While China did not begin to reveal its true intentions until mid-2005, it must have made substantial investments during the 2001 to 2005 Five-Year Planning cycle to begin to realize its goals. Given the intense focus of U.S. intelligence gathering means on China, it may be possible that the PLA for a time succeeded in hiding its aircraft carrier preparations. Another possible explanation for this mistaken conclusion may include a successful Chinese disinformation effort. However, the ultimate reason for this now embarrassing conclusion will most likely remain classified barring future disclosures by U.S. officials.

Public information began to leak out of China in mid-2005 due to patriotic Chinese enthusiasts who posted internet photos of the Varyag undergoing major work at about that time. The Dalian shipyards are located near a highway overpass that allows for clear photos of the ship. Prior to 2005 many photos showed that China had undertaken minimal work to clean up the ship’s exterior, but at least during the day, there was no evidence of substantial activity around the ship. And in contrast internet enthusiasts, Dalian shipyard workers appeared to maintain tight operational security or "Opsec," as very little has emerged by way of gossip about what was happening to the Varyag.

 
 
Varyag in May 2005: Enters a drydock in Dalian Harbor. Source: Internet

But in late May 2005 the Varyag moved into a drydock for the first time,[8] and it emerged in early August with a fresh coat of paint—this time in standard PLA Navy grey. While a seemingly minor development, the adoption of this color clearly indicates the Varyag is to be adopted by the PLAN for some yet-to-be-determined missions. Subsequent photos seen in December 2005 appear to show activity on the deck to apply new coatings consistent with aircraft operations. There is some question regarding the carrier’s steam turbine engines, with some sources indicating they were either not installed in the hull, or damaged by the Ukraine before being sold to China, following U.S. or other requests.[9] The hull did not have rudders when it arrived in Dalian. If true, it would then follow that China might have to pay a high price to purchase and install new engines, or pay for an unknown level but possibly less expensive set of repairs.

 
 
Varyag in late December 2005: New coatings begin to appear on the flight deck. Source: Internet

Gathering Carrier Air Wing

The most decisive information regarding China’s carrier intentions came during the Summer of 2005, when new data emerged regarding the gathering PLA Naval Air Force carrier air wing. The important new data emerged at the August Moscow Aerospace Salon. It became clear that China was going to Russia for actual carrier combat aircraft, or the technologies to modify a Chinese fighter for carrier operations. At this show an official from one Russian company noted with some confidence their projection that China was going to purchase the Sukhoi Su-33,[10] a version of the Su-27 fighter highly modified for operations off of the Russian Project 1143.5 Kuznetzov. If China did purchase the Su-33, it could be expected that it would incorporate advanced radar and weapons carriage capabilities consistent with the Su-27SM, which can fire the R-77 self guided air-to-air missile and a range of precision-guided ground attack weapons. This official, however, noted that the Sukhois would not operate from the Varyag, but from a future carrier yet to be built.[11]

 
 
PLAN Carrier Air Wing 1: Seen on the flightline at the 2005 Moscow Airshow, China is discussing the possible purchase of upgraded Su-33 fighters for a future aircraft carrier: Photo: RD Fisher

After the airshow, it was also reported that a special display flight during the show of the twin-seat Su-27KUB/Su-33UB carrier fighter was arranged especially for Chinese visitors.[12] The Su-33UB flight was not part of the day’s announced flight routine, nor was the fighter displayed on the airshow flightline.[13] The Russian report also noted that prior to the Moscow Airshow a Chinese delegation visited the Neveskoye PKB shipbuilding bureau, designer of the Kuznetsov, and the Ukrainian shipyard that built that ship.[14] If purchased, the Su-33KUB would give China a platform that would be better suited for more complex attack missions and for very critical training missions. The second crew member could more effectively operate Russian or Chinese-made precision-guided weapons that would arm this fighter.

 
 
PLAN Carrier Air Wing 2: This picture of the Su-33UB Naval Trainer/Attack variant was taken during an apparently unscheduled demonstration for Chinese visitors at the 2005 Moscow Airshow. Source: RD Fisher

Another Russian company noted that China was also intent on purchasing the thrust-vectored version of the AL-31FN, which in turn was modified for the Chengdu J-10 fighter, for the purpose of modifying the J-10 for carrier operations.[15] The J-10 would require substantial changes, especially to its landing gear, but a thrust vector engine would allow for a lower landing speed, and would also enable more rapid pitch-up in the event of a "bolter." In May 2005 Chinese sources disclosed to the author that the Chendgu Aircraft Co. was working on advanced variants of the J-10.[16]

 
 
 
PLAN Carrier Air Wing 3: Russian sources note that China is also developing a version of the Chengdu J-10 with a thrust-vectored AL-31FN engine for carrier use. Source: RD Fisher and Internet

 
 
PLAN Carrier Air Wing 4: Russian officials confirmed reports of Chinese interest in the Kamov Ka-31 airborne radar warning helicopter. Source: RD Fisher

Officials from the Kamov company confirmed reports that China was interested in purchasing its Ka-31 AEW radar helicopter.[17] While the Chinese may intend to operate these from its new Russian-made Sovremenniy or new indigenous air-defense destroyers, to help guide new anti-ship cruise missiles, it is also noteworthy that the Ka-31 is also part of the Kuznetzov’s air wing. In May, a Chinese magazine carried a photo of Premier Wu Bangguo visiting a Chinese aircraft concern. What made the photo newsworthy was that it contained a portion of a model of an AWACS aircraft designed for carrier operations. Similar in size to the Grumman S-2 Tracker, the new Chinese AWACS was powered by twin-turboprops and had a radar dome atop the fuselage. And as with the S-2, the Chinese airframe conceivably could be modified for ASW and carrier on-board delivery (COD) missions.

 
 
PLAN Carrier Air Wing 5: In mid-2005 Chinese sources revealed a possible design for a carrier AWACS aircraft, the airframe for which could also be modified to fulfill anti-submarine and cargo missions. Source: Internet

The Russian sources interviewed at the Moscow Airshow, plus subsequent Russian press reports, offer fairly strong confirmation of China’s plans to acquire a large CTOL aircraft carrier are now proceeding. The preference for the Su-33 would indicate as well that China was leaning toward a Russian-style carrier that did not employ catapult-assisted take-off. A thrust-vector engine J-10 might also be able to operate without catapults as well. One of the Russian sources indicated that a Chinese preference for the Su-33 did not mean they would be used by the Varyag, but would be most likely used for a yet to be built carrier.[18]

After a long debate it can be concluded that China is now actively preparing for the day when it acquires large CTOL aircraft carriers. There is no solid information regarding the ultimate purpose for the Varyag, though speculation ranges from use for pilot training, to performing the role of moving target in order for the PLA to perfect its emerging anti-carrier doctrine and operations. Furthermore, it is not yet possible to conclude that China is going to build a Russian-style carrier, thought that would appear to be the fastest solution. Nor it is possible yet to conclude how China will employ its carriers. If it opts for Russian style carriers, that may indicate an intention to follow Russian doctrine, and integrate their operations with land and sea based assets for the larger purpose of defending nuclear ballistic missile submarines. But if China instead opts for larger U.S.-style carriers, that may indicate even greater strategic ambitions to be able to project political-military power beyond East Asia. Either way, the number and types of new destroyers and nuclear attack submarines entering the PLA Navy would also allow China to build sufficient task groups around its future carriers.

Another conclusion also follows. For officials in Washington, Tokyo and Delhi, it no longer possible to avoid the necessity for planning a response to China’s emerging aircraft carrier force. For Washington, this means again revisiting the contentious issue of the size of the U.S. carrier fleet. If China were to build one carrier for each of its three major fleets, that would create pressure for the U.S. to either move a second carrier to East Asia, perhaps Guam in addition to Japan, or to consider that more than the current 11 carriers are needed in order to defend global U.S. strategic interests. The emergence of multiple Chinese carriers would also prompt both Japan and India to consider the disposition of their respective aircraft carrier capabilities. For India, this may mean considering the construction of more then two carriers. For Japan, it means considering the construction of a capability it has not had since World War Two.


[1] Bruce Gilley, "Flying Start," Far Eastern Economic Review, March 11, 1999, p. 24.

[2] Nayan Chanda, "No Cash Carrier," Far Eastern Economic Review, October 10, 1996, p. 20.

[3] In the most recent expansive academic review of the carrier issue, Ian Storey and You Ji concluded, "…no firm evidence exists that China intends to refurbish, build or buy an aircraft carrier. The prospect of a Chinese carrier remains subject to a great deal of rumor and speculation." see their, "China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions, Seeking Truth from Rumors," Naval War College Review, Winter 2004, p. 77.

[4] See Bernard D. Cole, The Great Wall And The Sea, China’s Navy Enters The Twenty-First Century, Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001, p. 148.

[5] "Suspicion Over Tight Security Around 'Casino' Aircraft Carrier in China," Agence France Presse, May 12, 2002.

[6] "Building aircraft carrier in Shanghai denied," Xinhuanet, June 16, 2005.

[7] Report to Congress Pursuant to the FY2000 National Defense Authorization Act, ANNUAL REPORT ON THE MILITARY POWER OF THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA. July 28, 2003, p. 25 [http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/20030730chinaex.pdf].

[8] Yihong Chang and Andrew Koch, "Is China Building A Carrier ?," Jane’s Defence Review, August 11, 2005.

[9] Ibid; author interview with Asian military sources, November 2005.

[10] Interview, Moscow Airshow, August 2005.

[11] Ibid.

[12] "Chinese Interest in Su-33," [http://www.redorbit.com/news/technology/294831/russian_industry_shows_its_stuff]

[13] As witnessed by author, Moscow Airshow, August 2005.

[14] "Chinese Interest…," op-cit.

[15] Interview, Moscow Airshow, August 2005.

[16] This fact and that of Chengdu’s considering the development of a F-35 class fighter were reported by the author in "Chengdu News," Air Forces Monthly, October 2005, p. 22.

[17] Vladimir Karnozov, "On Their MAKS…," Flight International, August 9-15, 2005, p. 28; Interview, Moscow Airshow, August 2005.

[18] Interview, Moscow Airshow, August 2005.

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