PLANS Liaoning (16)
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Originally laid down as the Admiral Kuznetsov-class multirole aircraft carrier Riga for the Soviet Navy, she was launched on December 4, 1988 and renamed Varyag in 1990. The stripped hulk was purchased in 1998 by the People's Republic of China and towed to Dalian Shipyard in north eastern China. After being completely rebuilt and sea trials, the ship was commissioned into the PLAN as Liaoning on September 25, 2012.
Design of the carrier was undertaken by the Nevskoye Planning and Design Bureau. The ship was laid down as Riga at Shipyard 444 (now Nikolayev South) in Mykolaiv, Ukraine on December 6, 1985. Launched on December 4, 1988, the carrier was renamed Varyag (Varangian) in late 1990, after the famous Russian cruiser.
Construction had ceased by 1992, with the ship structurally complete but without electronics. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, ownership was transferred to Ukraine; the ship was laid up, unmaintained, and then stripped. By early 1998, she lacked engines, a rudder, much of her operating systems, and was put up for auction. The hulk of the carrier was purchased from Ukraine in 1998 under the pretext it would be used as a floating casino, and towed to China. She has since been refitted by the PLAN as an aircraft carrier for "scientific research, experiment and training."
Sale to China
In April 1998, Ukrainian Trade Minister Roman Shpek announced the winning bid of US$20 million from Chong Lot Travel Agency Ltd., a small company based in Hong Kong. They proposed to tow Varyag out of the Black Sea, through the Suez Canal and around southern Asia to Macau, where they would moor the ship and convert it into a floating hotel and gambling parlor. It would be similar to the attractions Kiev in Tianjin and Minsk at Minsk World in Shenzhen.
Before the auction was closed, officials in Macau had warned Chong Lot that they would not be permitted to berth Varyag in the harbor. The sale was carried out anyway. Chong Lot is owned by Chin Luck (Holdings) Company of Hong Kong. Four of Chin Luck's six board members live in Yantai, China, where a major Chinese Navy shipyard is located. Chin Luck's chairman is a former career military officer with the People's Liberation Army.
In mid-2000, the Dutch International Transport Contractors tugboat Suhaili with a Filipino crew was hired to take Varyag under tow. Chong Lot could not get permission from Turkey to transit the dangerous Bosphorus strait; under the Montreux Treaty of 1936 Turkey has obligations to permit free passage, but has certain sovereignty and refusal rights. The hulk spent sixteen months under commercial tow circling in the Black Sea. High-level PRC government ministers conducted negotiations in Ankara on Chong Lot's behalf, offering to allow Chinese tourists to visit cash-strapped Turkey if the travel agency's ship were allowed to pass through the straits. On November 1, 2001, Turkey finally relented from its position that the vessel posed too great a danger to the bridges of Istanbul, and allowed the transit.
Varyag was escorted by twenty-seven vessels, including eleven tug boats and three pilot boats, and took six hours to transit the strait; most large ships take an hour and a half. The Russian press reported that sixteen pilots and 250 seamen were involved. At 11:45 a.m. on November 2, the hulk completed its passage and made for Gallipoli and Çanakkale at 5.8 knots (10.7 km/h; 6.7 mph). It passed through the Dardanelles without incident.
On November 3, Varyag was caught in a force 9 gale and broke adrift while passing the Greek island of Skyros. Sea rescue workers tried to re-capture the hulk, which was drifting toward the island of Euboea. The seven-member crew (three Russians, three Ukrainians and one Filipino) remained on board as six tugboats tried to re-establish their tow. After many failed attempts to reattach the lines, a Greek coast guard rescue helicopter landed on Varyag and picked up four of the seven crew. One tug managed to make a line fast to the ship later in the day, but high winds severely hampered efforts by two other tugs to secure the ship. On November 6, Aries Lima (reported as both Dutch and Portuguese), 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 at about three knots.
The Suez Canal does not permit passage of "dead" ships — those without their own on-board power source — so the hulk was towed through the Strait of Gibraltar and around the Cape of Good Hope, then subsequently through the Straits of Malacca. The tugs towing the hulk maintained an average speed of 6 knots (11 km/h) over the 15,200-nautical-mile (28,200 km) journey, calling for bunkers and supplies at Piraeus, Greece; Las Palmas, Canary Islands; Maputo, Mozambique; and Singapore en route. They entered Chinese waters on February 20, 2002, and arrived March 3 at Dalian Shipyard in north eastern China. China continued to assert that Varyag would be a casino. When Macau awarded new casino licenses in February 2002, Chong Lot was not among successful bidders. The hulk was tied up at Dalian. The total cost of acquiring the hulk was over US$30 million: US$25 million to the Ukrainian government for the hull, nearly US$500,000 in transit fees, and some US$5 million for the towing.
Modernization and Rebuild
In 2008, Robert Karniol, the Asia editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, said: "The Chinese haven't seen this type of carrier before and it could be very useful to them. They are trying to vacuum up as much know-how as they can". Liu Huaqing, a senior admiral of the PLAN and proponent of naval modernization, has spoken of the 21st century as the "century of the sea" and called for naval modernization over several decades. At the same time, there has been resistance within the PLAN towards Liu Huaqing's vision for an extensive Chinese navy, leading to constant debates between developing aircraft carriers and submarines
The Varyag was moved in early June 2005 to a dry dock at Dalian (38.935°N 121.6141°E). Her hull was sandblasted and scaffolding erected around her. Her island was painted in a red marine primer that is used to treat corroded metal. On October 24, 2006, the Kommersant online daily newspaper reported that Russia planned to sell up to fifty Su-33 fighters to China through Rosoboronexport, in a $2.5 billion deal. In March 2009 Moskovskij Komsomolets reported that these negotiations had collapsed over Russian fears that China might begin producing cheaper export versions of the u-33 with Chinese avionics and systems, undercutting Russian exports, in the same way as with the J-11B (Chinese version of the Su-27).
Jane's Fighting Ships had previously stated that the ship would possibly be named Shi Lang and assigned pennant number 83. Jane's noted that both the name and pennant number were unconfirmed. Shi Lang was a Ming-Qing Dynasty admiral who defeated Koxinga's descendants' navy and conquered Taiwan in 1683. Jane's Navy International noted in October 2007 that "refurbishment work and fitting out is continuing and the vessel is expected to begin initial sea trials in 2008". At the end of 2008, the Asahi Shimbun reported that the carrier was "nearing completion". On April 27, 2009 the carrier was reported to have been moved into another dry dock, "apparently to install engines and other heavy equipment". A new radar mast was installed on the superstructure by December 15, 2009.
In 2009, at the Wuhan Naval Research facilities near Huangjia Lake in the south western suburbs of Wuhan, the PLAN constructed a full scale logistics and training deck and island mock-up.
Sensors that have been observed are Type 348 active electronically scanned array (AESA) Radar (4 arrays) and Sea Eagle radar. Weapons observed have been the Type 1030 CIWS, and the FL-3000N missile system. It has also been observed that the old anti-ship missile tubes have been plugged and will not be used, thus freeing up more internal space for hangar or storage use. Russia plans to do the same when it modernizes its sister ship Kuznetsov. The Kamov Ka-31 has been confirmed as purchased and operational with the PLAN, and may form the Airborne early warning and control basis for the ship's air wing.
On June 8, 2011, the Chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army, Gen. Chen Bingde confirmed that Beijing was building an aircraft carrier, marking the first acknowledgement of the ship's existence from China's armed forces. He said that the refurbished Soviet carrier "is being built, but has not been completed." The ship would be used for training and as a model for a future indigenously-built ship. Qi Jianguo, assistant to the chief of the PLA's general staff said "All of the great nations in the world own aircraft carriers — they are symbols of a great power." On July 27, 2011, the Chinese Defense Ministry announced it was refitting the vessel for "scientific research, experiment and training."
Sea Trials and Handover
On August 10, 2011, the ex-Varyag began sea trials. An RSIS analyst noted that China still had a long way to go to make her operational, but was determined to do so. On August 15, 2011, she docked in Dalian, completing her first four-day sea trial. On November 29, 2011 the carrier left port for her second set of trials. In December 2011 the ship was photographed by satellite while undertaking sea trials. The carrier completed her eighth sea trial between June 7 and June 21, 2012 and returned to Dalian. In July 2012, the ship set out for the longest sea trials thus far, 25 days, and there was speculation that this would have involved testing the launching and recovery of aircraft.
According to the China Times, the carrier completed sea trials in early August 2012 and loaded Shenyang J-15 aircraft and KJ-88, YJ-83K, and YJ-91 missiles in preparation for weapons systems trials. Reuters analysis suggests the role of the ship will be mostly training and evaluation ahead of the building of domestic carriers, with only a limited operational role. Flight control software, avionics, weapons and radars remain to be developed. Reuters reports PLA officers stating the carrier is far from operational with extensive further trials and exercises required.
On September 23, 2012, the aircraft carrier was handed over to the People's Liberation Army Navy, and was commissioned on September 25, 2012. Currently, there is no official confirmation on any operational aircraft on the carrier, however some aircraft were identified inside the hangars according to a Chinese news report. Further, a Chinese Navy pilot successfully landed his J-15 jet fighter on the carrier deck, performing an arrested landing with a tailhook. At the commissioning ceremony, the carrier was officially named Liaoning. The ship was named in honour of the Liaoning province, in which she was retrofitted.
On December 26, 2012, the People's Daily reported that it will take 4 to 5 years for the Liaoning to reach full capacity, mainly due to training and coordination which will take significant amount of time for Chinese PLA Navy to complete as this is the first aircraft carrier in their possession. As it is a training ship, Liaoning is not assigned to any of China's operation fleets.
On April 7, 2014, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel became the first foreign visitor to take a tour of the Liaoning. The tour was part of a trip to China to discuss cybersecurity and address China's military buildup in the East China Sea. Secretary Hagel had asked to see the ship in early 2014, and the request was accepted a few weeks before his arrival. Hagel and a small number of his staff toured the vessel for two hours at Yuchi Naval Base where he observed the medical facilities, living quarters, flight deck, bridge, and flight control station. They received a briefing about the carrier and also had refreshments with junior officers. The Pentagon said that Secretary Hagel was pleased that he was able to visit the Liaoning and was impressed by the professionalism of the officers and crew.
On November 4, 2012, the People's Liberation Army website reported that J-15s had performed carrier touch-and-go training. On November 25, 2012, China announced that J-15s had made five successful arrested landings on Liaoning. In June 2013, a second round of flight tests began on board Liaoning, with personnel from the fleet air arm of the Brazilian Navy providing carrier training support to the Chinese Navy. In August 2014, Chinese state media reported that at least two pilots had been killed testing jets slated to operate from the Liaoning. The circumstances of their deaths are unknown and it is likely that at least two aircraft had been lost.
In August 2014, the Chinese-language Shanghai Morning Post listed that the Liaoning would carry fifty aircraft: thirty Shenyang J-15 fighters; eight Changhe Z-18F ASW helicopters; six Changhe Z-18J AEW helicopters; and four Harbin Z-9C SAR helicopters. The Chinese carrier aircraft inventory is similar to a balanced combat and support aircraft approach intended for Soviet aircraft carriers, which supported nuclear submarines, large surface combatants, and land-based strike bombers performing anti-access roles. The air wing lacks long-range radar and anti-submarine fixed-wing aircraft, needing support from shore-based aircraft such as Tupolev Tu-154 ASW and Shaanxi Y-8 AWACS aircraft The lack of a carrier onboard delivery aircraft like the U.S. Navy C-2 Greyhound also limits logistics capabilities. The Liaoning would need extensive land-based support to oppose a U.S. Navy carrier battle group; it is potent against the Vietnamese and the Philippine navies. Deficiencies will likely be corrected with future aircraft carriers, which are expected to be larger with conventional takeoff decks and catapult launching for heavier fighters, plus fixed-wing radar and anti-submarine patrol aircraft. The U.S. Department of Defense noted that the J-15 will have below normal range and armament when operating from the carrier, due to limits imposed by the ski-jump takeoff and arrested carrier landings.