Sea trials of the former half-finished Soviet-era aircraft carrier, the Varyag, that China has been fitting out at Dalian, seen above, were meant to have started on July 1st. Now local press reports are saying that the trials will get underway this month (here via Caijing, which puts the start date as soon as August 6th, though we think they’ll wait for the weather to improve). Workers have been seen readying the vessel to sail and uniformed PLA-Navy sailors parading on the vessel’s deck (Xinhua picture here). The carrier has previously sailed under it’s own power, as this footage shows, but the sea trials will provide a full test of its systems, which are Chinese developed.
Li Xiaoyan, a PLA-N senior colonel, has been given the command. According to state media,
Li, from northeast China’s Jilin Province, was a member of the country’s first warship academy class in 1987 mainly for aircraft carrier commanders and among the country’s first group of commanders who could both pilot aircraft and sail warships.
Li, 50, is a PLA high-flyer, in all senses. He joined the PLA Air Force in 1979 and was one of the top pilots graduating from the naval pilot captain’s course at Guangzhou Warship Academy in 1987. After getting his first naval command, the frigate Jiangmen, in 1995, Li was sent to the Kuznetsov Naval Academy in Russia (coincidentally the Varyag is a Kuznetsov class carrier) whence he graduated with a master’s degree in 1999. He then took command of a destroyer, the Shenzhen, before becoming group captain of several destroyers in the PLA-Navy’s South China Fleet in 2004. In 2007, he was promoted to chief of staff of the fleet’s destroyer task force. Li was posted to Dalian in December 2010. His extensive experience of the disputed South China Sea suggests that is where his new command will be spending a lot of time.
In 2002, Li studied another decommissioned Soviet carrier that had been sold to China, the Minsk, that was being used as the centerpiece of a military theme park in Shenzhen (see the footnote to this piece). He told a Hong Kong newspaper at the time that China would build its own carriers. More likely evidence of long-term planning than a luck guess.
There are pictures of the Varyag here. And a pictorial timeline of the ship’s outfitting here. But they give no hint of what it will be renamed. Nor has there been any official word. Our widow’s mite would be on one of China’s four municipalities–Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin–being honoured, if on no other grounds than the PLA tends to name its warships after cities, and thus the biggest ships in the line would be named after the biggest metropolises; plus there is the happy coincidence of four municipalities and a planned fleet of four carriers. And while we are crawling along this thin branch, we’ll plump for Tianjin as it is closest to Dalian.
One other point to make is that, once in service, as a “ski-jump” not “catapult” carrier, it will not be able to launch the most advanced fighters. It will most likely carry helicopters and VTOL aircraft. As such it falls into the class of light aircraft carriers. It is half the size of America’s smallest carrier, as much an aviation-capable patrol ship as anything. And it is primarily intended for the PLA to learn the ropes of carrier operations. But every carrier fleet has to start somewhere.