The satellite picture above is the first reported sighting at sea of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Varyag. It was taken by a U.S. imaging company, Digital Globe, on December 8, and shows the vessel in the Yellow Sea some 100 kilometers south-southeast of Dalian, the port where the converted former Soviet carrier has been refitted. The carrier sailed from Dalian on November 29 to undertake its second sea trials. We have photos of it leaving port and of the first test flight of the carrier-based J-15 fighter in PLA-Navy colors that is being developed to equip China’s planned carrier fleet here.
Tag Archives: Navy
These two pictures of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Varyag, were taken on November 29th as the vessel was leaving its berth in Dalian for its second sea trials.
The first sea trials took place in August. There are plenty of pictures of the ship’s return here.
Meanwhile, state media has published what is says are pictures of the test flight of a carrier-based J-15 fighter, though the photograph is undated. (Similar pictures of a J-15 in PLA-Navy colours were doing the rounds in April.) China has produced three prototypes of the aircraft. There has been speculation that a landing and takeoff from the carrier may have been attempted during the second sea trial but it is more likely that any such exercise would have involved helicopters in the first instance.
The so-called string of pearls—a series of naval bases in South and Southeast Asia intended to secure Chinese sea lines of communication across the Indian Ocean–looks to be adding another gem. Beijing has indicated that it will start using the Seychelles to resupply its naval fleet, initially PLA-Navy vessels on anti-piracy patrols, but also prompting speculation that this is a prelude to establishing a naval base there. Defense Minister Liang Guanglie was in the Seychelles earlier this month to boost bilateral ties. Seychelles President James Alix Michel visited Beijing in October. The two countries have had a military cooperation agreement since 2004 that provides for Seychelles soldiers to be trained in China.
Pearls already in the string include Marao in the Maldives, Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Sittwe in Burma, Lamu in Kenya and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. China also has resupply agreements with Oman and Yemen, similar to the one being initially proposed with the Seychelles. The U.S. has a drone base in the Seychelles, but the arrival of the Chinese fleet in such a strategically important part of the Indian Ocean would give rise to most concern in New Delhi.
China’s much-watched first aircraft carrier, a refitted old Soviet carrier, the Varyag, has set out on its second sea trial, state media report. (Defense ministry statement, in Chinese.) The photo above, taken on Nov. 29, shows the carrier heading out of Dalian, where its conversion work has been done.
The Varyag’s first sea trials took place in August. The vessel has since been back in its dock in Dalian for further fitting out. It second voyage is thought to be for additional systems testing and crew training. It is unclear whether the carrier will join up with any of the annual exercises the PLA-Navy is currently conducting in the western Pacific.
State media has been posting pictures of the PLA Navy’s latest generation of missile fast attack craft. The first of the high-speed catamarans appeared as long ago at 2004, but the fleet is being steadily built out, and now numbers in the dozens. We do wonder why they are being shown off now though, beyond showing there is more to the PLA-N than just an aircraft carrier.
The PLA-N is believed to be the first navy to use combat catamarans, as opposed to catamaran support vessels. Its are equipped with eight YJ-83 anti-ship missiles, launched from two pods at the stern. There is 30mm artillery for short-range air defence on the bow deck, plus a couple of four-tube tube launchers. The hulls are constructed to be more stable in choppy seas than conventional catamarans and use a wave-piercing design from Australia that is also used in passenger ferries in China.
The camouflage paints used on the missile catamarans in the picture above suggest that they will be used in the southern fleet. Those deployed in northern waters use a four-color scheme that includes black, as seen in the picture below.
Update: This pictorial show of sea power may mirror a real one being reported by the Financial Times which says that a Chinese warship confronted an Indian navy vessel in the South China Sea shortly after it left Vietnamese waters in late July. The implication of the naval challenge is that China is enforcing its belief that it is entitled to police the entirety of the South China Sea, over which it claims a sovereignty not acknowledged by its regional neighbors.
The Varyag is back at its berth in Dalian after its first four-day sea trial. While few details have been made public, and foggy weather would have restricted satellite observation, it seems that the carrier’s basic systems — engines, electronic systems, navigation systems — were being tested. All appears to have gone without undue incident. Firecrackers greeted the vessel’s return to port. Its weapons systems were covered up as tug boats guided it back in. There are plenty of pictures of the ship’s return on this site, which follows Chinese military affairs. Further fitting out of the Varyag, which was bought as an unfinished ship from the Ukraine, will now continue. The next important phase will be to commission its wing of J-15 fighters. It is expected the Varyag will go into service in about a year’s time, to mark the 85th anniversary of the PLA-Navy.
China’s first aircraft carrier has started its sea trials. The PLA-Navy’s Varyag has cast off from its Dalian berth, according to Xinhua. The voyage is likely to be short. The Liaoning Provincial Maritime Safety Administration has banned shipping from an area in the northern Yellow Sea and Liaodong Bay off the Dalian coast, 13.25 nautical miles wide and 22 nautical miles long, from Aug. 10th to 14th. On its return to Dalian. the vessel will continue its fitting out.
Official pictures of the carrier are here.
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.
China’s defense ministry has posted to its website for the first time pictures of its worst-kept military secret, the country’s first aircraft carrier (above), a refitted 1980s-era former Soviet carrier, the 58,500-ton Varyag, that China bought in 1998. The ministry has also talked about the vessel in public for the first time, though its spokesman didn’t add anything to what was already known. The vessel remains unrenamed and no date was given for the start of full sea trials. These, though, are expected to start imminently as the carrier is due to be brought into service next year, the year that China’s first batch of naval carrier pilots will graduate from the PLA’s Dalian Naval Academy. Online video of the carrier sailing under its own power in waters off Dalian, where the fitting out is being done, was posted back in January.
The spokesman also confirmed that the carrier was to be used for research and training, as has always been taken to be the case. As we noted last year, coming along behind are two 50,000-60,000-ton conventionally powered indigenous carriers being built in Shanghai with the first planned for launch in 2014. A nuclear powered carrier is scheduled to be launched by 2020. They will be warships of the line.
The pictures the ministry has posted are undated. There are four more here. The Google map below, also undated beyond this year, shows the vessel in the water in Dalian.
Footnote: The Varyag is not the first ex-Soviet aircraft carrier that China has purchased. It bought two others, in 1998 and 2000, that went into theme parks in Shenzhen and Tianjin respectively. It also bought an old World War II-era British carrier that London had sold on to Australia and which Beijing bought for scrap. (H/t to Caixin.)
We are starting to hear murmurs and whispers about the People’s Liberation Army’s new five-year plan. Unlike the detail made public about the national five-year plan and even the White Paper on the PLA published at the end of last month, the military budget is held close to the chest.
The headline spending number we do know, from the national five-year plan: a military budget of 601 billion yuan ($92.5 billion) for 2011 and an annual increase of 12.5% for the life of the plan, restoring the double-digit annual growth derailed by the 2008 global financial crisis. But that is only the half of it. Also to be taken into account are off-budget items, spending done under the aegis of internal security and disaster relief, in both of which the PLA plays a significant role, and R&D in industries whose technologies have dual military-civilian applications. Together they likely double the formal budget number.
As for the detail that lies behind, we are told that Xi Jinping, the man slated to succeed Hu Jintao as president next year and then after as chairman of the Party’s central military commission (he was appointed as first vice-chairman last October), has signed off on a final draft. Xi is said to have good relations with the group of more than 100 fellow princelings who hold the rank of major-general and above. (As an aside, that group may prove to be an important soft factor in the coming leadership transition.)
The heading of Section XV of the national five-year plan, the one that relates to the PLA, is “Advance Military Power.” The main thrust will be, first, to continue to modernize the PLA and to make it a more professional fighting force, particularly its officer class, and, second, to turn it into a more integrated tri-service force, commensurate with the needs of China’s growing global presence and better equipped to fight what are being called information wars. For historic reasons, ground forces have dominated the PLA. Yet the PLA Navy (PLA-N) and the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) are at the forefront of the PLA’s modernization. Witness the new aircraft carriers, submarines, ballistic missiles, and fighter jets, in keeping with China’s desire to project regional power, particularly in the waters off its coast. The PLA command structure, including its communications and logistics, does not yet anything like fully reflect the growing prominence of the naval and air services, though progress is being made a great speed on the communications infrastructure. A unified joint military command is also needed for the tighter integration between the PLA and internal security forces that the national five-year plan envisions for ensuring domestic stability.
The process of integration is likely to be least comfortable for the army. Senior officers have already been fighting a rearguard to protect the structure of the seven military regions that Mao divided China into–and to protect the multiplicity of high ranking posts they provide. They will also have to deal with the overwhelming majority of a planned cut of 500,000 personnel during the five-year plan coming from the PLA’s 1.3 million-strong ground forces, 60% of its total strength of 2.3 million personnel (excluding 6 million militia). Better pay and conditions will be provided for those remaining.
The PLAAF has already undergone a similar slimming down, ridding itself of antiquated planes and equipment and the personnel to operate and maintain them. In the process it has become a stronger combat force through modernization of what was left. It is not just new aircraft, such as the much hyped J-20 stealth fighter flaunted earlier this year. The air force has undergone a makeover of its ability to deploy over large distances. Its relief efforts in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 showed up shortcomings in its capacity to transport men and materials from all over the country to a distant front. These failings are since being redressed.
As well as modernizing the command and communications structure, upgrading hardware will continue apace. The navy and the air force will get more by way of newest and deadliest toys than the ground forces, although there will be some arm-wrestling between the air force and the Second Artillery Corps, the missiles force, over who owns space weaponry and counterweaponry. Money to be put into advanced weapons and their development is likely to drive an expansion of the country’s state-owned defense industries, too, creating stiff competition for Western arms makers in Asia and Africa in particular where Chinese firms will be less encumbered with ethical restrictions on arms sales than Western competitors; China is currently the world’s ninth largest arms exporter with sales of $2.4 billion in 2010. The five-year plan calls for this number to double over its duration, with profits being used to fund more R&D in weaponry, particularly fighters and missiles.
Defense companies have more expertise and experience than the PLA in aviation, electronics, transportation, machine-building and especially the IT necessary for infowar and electronic espionage. They will be able to tap into the $1.5 trillion being earmarked under the national five-year plan to expand seven strategic industrial sectors. Most of the septet have technologies with joint military-civilian applications.
Industrial companies now account for two-thirds of the institutions that are licensed for weapons R&D and production. Beijing is consolidating the country’s defense contractors into fewer than 10 giant state-owned groups. State funds are also being allocated to them to attract top science, technology and engineering talent to the R&D effort, and to match similar incentives for scientists and technical personnel in PLA research and weapons plants. These defense contractors are also able to strike civilian joint ventures with foreign groups to acquire technologies around composite materials, turbine blades and flight control systems where their own lags. As with civilian heavy engineering markets, Western companies will have to decide if access to China’s domestic market is worth the trade-off of giving up technology.
However, they decide, the PLA’s supply chain is going to become more blended with civilian industry over the next five years–with consequent implications for the pace of economic reform in strategic areas where the military interest, already strong in some parts of the economy, will coagulate as a strong vested interest against change.
China continues to stress publicly the defensive nature of its armed forces. Peace has certainly been good for its economic growth. Yet the PLA’s modernization seems aimed at giving a modernizing country modern armed forces and Beijing the ability to project regional power and to protect its growing global commercial interests–or at least to create the perception of sufficient strength to do so, an important deterrent in its own right.
Thus the military five-year plan is predicated on a continuation of developing leaner, more technologically sophisticated armed forces with a joint command structure capable of “winning local wars under conditions of high technology and informatisation”. At the same time, the PLA is being prepared to play a more central role in internal security should that be needed, particularly during the coming leadership transition, and one able to deal with the cyber side of modern civil unrest should the current crackdown on dissent by traditional means prove insufficient.
This Bystander could readily conclude that while China is not expecting, or wanting, a serious military conflict during the course of the current five-year plan, or beyond, it does see itself becoming strong enough to deflect others from doing so, especially off its own coast and around islands large and small in those waters, and to be able to engage in–and win–information and cyber skirmishes at home and abroad.