LIAONING and a Chinese passenger ferry, published under Wikimedia Commons license
After more than a decade of preparations, the People’s Republic Of China has placed their first aircraft carrier into service. The LIAONING was officially handed over to China’s military forces at the port of Dalian in northeastern Liaoning province on September 25, 2012. Originally built for the Soviet Navy, as the VARYAG, the largely unfinished vessel was towed from the Ukraine to China beginning in 2001, a process that in itself took nearly a year. The handover of the ship marks the end of the rebuilding process, which will be followed by a series of military tests and exercises to make further adjustments over the next three years, before formally deploying the vessel. At the moment it carries no aircraft suitable for carrier operations. When fully operational the ship is capable of carrying up to 30 fixed-wing aircraft, 24 helicopters and up to 1,960 crew.
The gestation period for this vessel has been incredibly long and convoluted. Originally laid down on December 6, 1985 at Shipyard 444 at Nikolayev, Ukraine, the intended name was to be RIGA; a member of the ADMIRAL KUZNETSOV class of 55,000 displacement ton aircraft carriers. The ship was launched on December 4, 1988 but was not named VARYAG until late 1990. By 1992 construction had ground to a complete halt. The ship was structurally complete but without electronics. Stripped of what she did have, the hull was put up for auction in 1998 without engines, rudder, or operating systems. Even when purchased by China, their stated intention was to use the ship as an amusement park or casino. The Suez Canal does not permit the passage of ships without their own on board power, so the tow had to go through the Straits Of Gibraltar, around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean. The huge hulk arrived March 3, 2002 in Dalian, China. Work on the unfinished vessel probably commenced between 2005 and 2007. On August 10, 2011 the ship began the first of what would be 10 sets of sea trials, lasting a full year. With all of its key equipment removed or destroyed, China has had to learn the process of building an aircraft carrier almost from scratch, along with the naval fighter jets that will be used on board. A deal to buy planes from the former Soviets fell through. The Chinese also recently began construction of the first 100,000 gross ton cruise ship to be built in that country, which will be a learning process as well.
China has a long history of wanting to be a major sea power. As early as 1928 the first proposals were put forward to build a carrier for China’s navy. At the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Premier Zhou Enlai and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) commander advocated carrier development, and Chairman Mao made a speech supporting carrier development in 1958. In 2012 China still has ambitions to be a leading naval power in Asia, a plan that Japan, South Korea and the United States may not be too comfortable with.
VARYAG under tow, Turkey, December, 2001.
The LIAONING, is named for the province in which it was rebuilt. Most Chinese military ships are traditionally named for provinces. The ship is 999 feet long (304.5 meters) with a beam of 246 feet (75 meters) overall or 125 feet (38 meters) at the waterline. Propulsion is provided by eight boilers driving steam turbines generating 200,000 hp. With quadruple screws the service speed is projected to be 32 knots. The ship can remain at sea for up to 45 days and has a range of 3,850 nautical miles. It bears the designation number 16 on its hull. While the Chinese may have their first aircraft carrier they are still many years away from developing a proper battle group which would include constructing at least two more ships of this type.
Shawn J. Dake, freelance travel writer and regular contributor to MaritimeMatters, worked in tourism and cruise industry for over 35 years. A native of Southern California, his first job was as a tour guide aboard the Queen Mary. A frequent lecturer on ship-related topics he has appeared on TV programs. Owner of Oceans Away Cruises & Travel agency, he served as President of the local Chapter of Steamship Historical Society of America. With a love of the sea, he is a veteran of 115 cruises.
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