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China Has Plans For Five Carriers
Aviation Week

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on January 5th, 2011

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is assembling the production and basing capacity to make its aircraft carrier program one of Asia’s largest military endeavors.

A plausible near-term projection for China’s aircraft carrier ambitions was revealed in two 2009 articles in Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper, which featured rare access to Chinese military and shipbuilding sources. The sources noted that China would first build two non-nuclear medium-sized carriers similar to the 50,000-ton ex-Soviet/Ukrainian Project 1143.5 carrier Varyag being rebuilt in Dalian Harbor. These carriers would start initial construction in 2009. Beginning in 2020 or soon after, two 60,000-plus-ton nuclear-powered carriers would follow, based on plans for the Soviet-designed but never built Project 1143.7 Ulyanovsk class.

This would mean a likely fleet of five carriers by the 2020s, including Varyag, which entered a phase of accelerated reconstruction in 2009. Work surrounding this carrier is also serving to create the development and production infrastructure for future carriers. Since mid-2005, Varyag’s reconstruction has been documented by images from Chinese military fans on dozens of web pages.

In April 2009, Varyag was moved from its Dalian berth to a nearby drydock. Surrounding the drydock are large ship-component construction hangars, from which the next carriers may emerge. By April 2010, the ship was berthed outside the drydock. Since the move the hull has undergone degaussing, likely in preparation for the now-visible outfitting of a new naval electronics suite. This suite will include four arrays for Chinese-developed naval phased-array radar and new rotating-array radar. Emplacements for the electronic warfare suite are visible.

A “Sinicized” model of a Varyag-like carrier, built in 2003 by students at Harbin Technology Institute, which does carrier development work, indicated it would carry a heavy fixed armament of YJ-63 long-range antiship cruise missiles, vertically launched medium-range surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and Type 730 30-mm. close-in weapon systems (CIWS). Last November, however, Internet imagery indicated it might carry a lighter weapons suite. It will be the lead platform for the short-range FL-3000N SAM, similar to Raytheon’s SeaRAM, though it carries 24 missiles. The imagery shows that Varyag will carry four FL-3000N launchers and at least two Type-730 30-mm. CIWS.

Varyag’s air wing is becoming visible. Chinese Internet sources reported that the first flight of the Shenyang Aircraft Corp.’s copy of the Sukhoi Su-33 was in August 2009, and by early 2010 Internet imagery and a video confirmed Shenyang had copied the Su-33. Since 2005 Russian sourceshave insisted to this writer that China could not copy the Su-33, as it was a radical modification of the Su-27SK design. By 2009, these sources anticipated China would purchase an upgraded Su-33 as it developed its own version with a Chinese-designed WS-10A turbofan. In 2010, an Asian source said the PLA might not be pleased with its Su-33 copy, and would consider buying the Sukhoi-built version. Since 2005, negotiations have been held up over Russia’s insistence that China buy a profitable number, around 40.

It is now expected that Shenyang will perfect its Su-33 copy, which will feature the latest Chinese-designed active phased-array radar, and new 5th-generation air-to-air missiles and long-range antiship missiles, such as an air-launched version of the YJ-63, with a range of 600-plus km. (373 mi.). Varyag may start its service with a multirole fighter more capable in some respects than the Boeing F/A-18E/F.

In 2010, Internet images appeared of a new airborne early-warning and control radar array of the size needed for a carrier aircraft. This followed a 2005 partial image of a turboprop-powered AEW&C. In October 2009, Internet images emerged of possibly retractable AEW&C radar on a Chinese Z-8 helicopter, which may form part of the initial air wing.

The PLA is also building escort ships for its carrier fleet. In the autumn of 2009 it appeared that two Chinese shipyards were building two new destroyer classes, but their configurations and equipment are not apparent. The PLA is expected to build up to 18 modern Type-065A air-defense frigates. Two new Type-093 nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) have been built, and a more capable Type-095 SSN is expected.

When it enters service around 2015, the Varyag and its sisters, plus escorts, may be located at a recently constructed naval base near Sanya on Hainan Island.

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