The new Chinese carrier being shown in Xinhua and China Daily reports is the former Soviet carrier Varyag. This ship has an extraordinary history, and its present is providing some interesting moments, too.
It was scrapped, towed around the world, and sat rusting, idle for years. Now it’s looking like an operational carrier.
The Varyag was a Soviet carrier under construction which passed into the hands of the Ukraine when the USSR broke up in 1992. It was sold at auction to the Chinese Chong Lot syndicate in 1998, which said it intended to turn it into a casino. The owner of Chong Lot was a former PLA officer. Experts at the time thought the Chinese were buying it for study for their own carrier, as they had with HMAS Melbourne and other carriers.
They were wrong. The Chinese, after extensive negotiations with Turkey, were allowed to tow the Varyag (basically the shell of the ship) through the Bosporus Straits into the Mediterranean in 2000. The ship then ran into a Force 9 gale, and a horrific ordeal followed in which at least one person was killed as the towing vessels tried to stop the carrier grounding.
Varyag, lacking her own power systems, wasn’t allowed to go through the Suez Canal, and was literally towed around Africa and through the Malacca Straits to China, arriving in 2002. After further inactivity, Varyag was entered into drydock in 2005, where she’s been ever since, being progressively restored structurally and outfitted with modern machinery and equipment.
The latest phase in the ship’s career has begun as a publicity campaign. Xinhua yesterday published several pictures of the new carrier, which show her covered in workmen, cranes and obviously very spruced up externally. China Daily followed suit with a large number of similar photos, notably all from one side, some being magnifications of wider shots.
Some tongue in cheek humor is available, too. China Daily reports, deadpan:
The Xinhua picture captions said refitting work on the Varyag, a Soviet-designed Admiral Kuznetsov-class carrier that China bought from Ukraine in 1998, was almost complete after more than a decade spent on reconstruction.
"A 70-year dream of an aircraft carrier that is all-Chinese will come true soon," one caption said.
Citing the latest report of Canadian-based Kanwa Asian Defence Monthly, the captions confirmed the carrier would start sea trials this year after an active phased array radar system was installed on the vessel.
Meaning China Daily, citing Xinhua picture captions quoting a Western source, confirms the Western source, without providing any actual information. Nice bit of copy editing, “Tell them what they said themselves and make it look good.”
Much speculation has also been generated. Existing theories vary from the meaningless to the obvious:
1. Varyag is intended as a training carrier.
2. Varyag is to form the basis of a Chinese carrier group.
3. The new carrier represents China’s naval ambitions.
4. The Varyag, which has been owned by China for 13 years, is part of a current military buildup.
5. The Varyag is named the Shi Lang after an admiral who conquered Taiwan in the 17th century.
As usual, the fodder mills are grinding chaff as much as grain, and doing a pretty lousy job of it. As a description, "banal" really doesn't do justice to these theories:
1. Training is quite commonly given to carrier pilots on carriers, yes.
2. A carrier group containing a carrier? You don’t say? Those inscrutable Chinese. Must have taken years to figure that out.
3. China has a coastline longer than the US West coast, in one of the least predictable, bitchy, marine environments on Earth. This is a region where shipping is at peak hour commuter speeds, several nations are disputing sovereignty over islands, and the ability to get planes and choppers into the air makes a lot of sense.
4. The PLA Navy, like the rest of the PLA, is basically reinventing itself from the old Blue Ant days. Fossils from the 60s, 70s and 80s couldn’t operate effectively in a bathtub, let alone a modern combat or piracy environment.
5. Very conspicuously, the Varyag is still being called the Varyag, and has not yet been given a Chinese name. It’s even quite possible that Xinhua, of all news sources, would know if there was a Chinese name.
So the story so far is that a former Soviet carrier of a known operational class, the Admiral Kusnetsov class, of which the Admiral Kusnetsov itself is still in service, is also likely to become operational. It’s going to have planes and everything, and is scheduled for sea trials this year.
What’s becoming really strange about this story is that the obvious is apparently so hard to fathom.
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