It is a symbolic departure as much as anything, but China’s first aircraft carrier has sailed from its berth in Dalian for the first time formally under the PLA-Navy’s command. The vessel, a converted half-built Soviet-era carrier, the Varyag, was handed over to the Navy and renamed the Liaoning on September 25. Xinhua reports it slipped out of port on Friday evening.
Xinhua also reports that new pictures show a J-15 carrier-based fighter aircraft practicing take-off and landing on the craft, though the one that Xinhua publishes with its report was taken in May during another sea trial. We assume from this that the purpose of this voyage would be to start the serious business of training carrier pilots in real conditions.
There was a certain symbolism to the timing of the formal commissioning of China’s first aircraft carrier into the PLA-Navy (above, with more pictures of the ceremony at a naval base north of Dalian here). It came as Beijing is embroiled in maritime sovereignty disputes with most of its neighbours in the East and South China Seas. Carriers project the epitome of naval power, and as many officials have repeated, are “symbols of a great nation”.
It is worth remembering, however, that China’s first carrier–a refitted ex-Soviet carrier, the Varyag, now renamed the Liaoning–falls into the class of light aircraft carriers. As a “ski-jump” not “catapult” carrier, it can’t launch the most advanced fighters. It is as much an aviation-capable patrol ship as a carrier of the line. It is primarily intended for the PLA to learn the ropes of carrier operations.
At the 58,500-tons, the vessel is small by carrier standards. It is about half the size of U.S. carriers, even if still large enough to dwarf the coast guard boats and fishing vessels now increasingly plying the more sensitive disputed waters off the coasts of China and its neighbours. This year was always the intended date of its commissioning, but state media have previously reported that the carrier won’t be ready for active service until 2017, which is not to say it won’t be available for flag-waving duties before then. But it is also worth remembering that two larger and more advanced carriers are under construction in yards in Shanghai planned for launch in 2014 with a first nuclear powered carrier scheduled for launch by 2020.
A passing symmetry to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s visit to China that caught this Bystander’s eye: his country has sold unwanted aircraft carriers to both Beijing and New Delhi. India’s INS Vikramaditya, the former Admiral Gorshkov, started sea trials this week while China’s Varyag completed its seventh sea trial last month. China’s is of more recent vintage, but India’s is likely to be able to deploy more advanced fighters and helicopters at sea. For both countries, though, it is all about a symmetrical projection of power at sea.
China’s first aircraft carrier is conducting its third set of sea trials, the defense ministry says. The Varyag had set out on its second sea trials at the end of November, during which it was photographed at sea for the first time by an American satellite. The picture above is one of the latest of the vessel to be published, and is believed to be of the former Soviet carrier again leaving its berth in Dalian where it had been refurbished. That it is dated December 22nd suggests the carrier has been at sea for several days.
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.
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.
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.