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Is China Building Aircraft Carriers?

by Ward Carroll on May 23, 2008

chinese-aircraftcarrier.jpg

The recent flurry of articles and revelations about the submarine-hiding tunnels on Hainan Island in the South China Sea has again raised questions about Chinas aircraft carrier program. Indeed, some articles have suggested that the tunnels may be large enough to “hide” an aircraft carrier — a clear impossibility.

[Photo of ‘concrete’ carrier: Marc van der Chijs blog]

Articles regularly cite Chinese plans to rehabilitate the ex-Soviet carrier Varyag, now moored at the port of Dalian, or even the carrier Minsk, moored as a “theme park” at Shenzhen. Other articles cite alleged Chinese plans to build up to six aircraft carriers in the near term. A South Korean newspaper has stated that “A source close to Chinese military affairs said … that China has been promoting the construction of a 93,000-ton atomic-powered carrier under a plan titled 085 Project. The nation also has a plan to build a 48,000-ton non-nuclear-powered carrier under the so-called 089 Project.“

The Chinese Navy is certainly interested in aircraft carriers. At the end of the Cold War a Chinese naval delegation visited the Black Sea shipyard at Nikolayev in the newly established Ukraine nation to examine the unfinished Soviet carrier Varyag. Subsequently, shortly before his retirement in 1997, Admiral Liu Huaqing wrote that it was “extremely necessary” for China to possess aircraft carriers. Liu was Commander-in-Chief of the Chinese Navy from 1982 to 1988, and the vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission from 1989 to 1997.

According to Liu, aircraft carriers are needed to protect Chinas sovereignty and maritime resources, especially with regard to Taiwan and the South China Sea; guard Chinas sea lines of communications as the country industrializes and becomes a major trading power; enable China to keep up with regional powers such as India and Japan; and give Chinas Navy a decisive edge in future naval warfare.

In the early 1990s the Chinese Navy began a large-scale modernization program, acquiring advanced submarines, destroyers, anti-ship missiles, and aircraft, primarily from Russia.  Rumors surrounded those acquisitions that a carrier program was begun when China acquired the unfinished Russian Varyag and the retired carrier Minsk in the late 1990s. But both ships had been stripped of all useful aviation and electronic equipment, and their propulsion plants are inert; at best they could provide Chinese naval architects with hands-on design information.

Upon arrival in China the Minsk spent 18 months at the Guangzhou Wenchong Shipyard for repairs and rehabilitation. She was then towed to Shenzen, arriving on 9 May 2000, configured as the center piece for a military a museum-theme park.  She is certainly not capable of being returned to service as an operational carrier.

The Varyag is equally problematical. Since being towed to Dalian she has been painted but no other work has been observed, with the ship being readily visible from public locations.


Returning the Varyag — designed in the 1960s — to operational service would require new propulsion and auxiliary machinery, new electronics with the attendant wiring of the ship, structural repairs, and other work. Looking at the continued delays and increasing costs of a Russian shipyard rehabilitating and upgrading the Soviet-built carrier Admiral Gorshkov for the Indian Navy, objective analyses shows that the Varyag is highly unlikely to be returned to service. She has lain idle with no work on the ship having been observed since her arrival at Dalian on 3 March 2002.

Rather, it can be expected that in the next few years the Chinese Navy will initiate the construction of small carriers — possibly modeled on the recent Japanese-built dock landing ships and aegis destroyers that have large flight decks.  Such ships would be a reasonable step toward the eventual construction of large carriers — to be started a decade or more from now.

Norman Polmar

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

eric May 23, 2008 at 8:15 am

They can also skip that part and think outside the box. Carriers are about air supremacy and with uav’s taking over more and more tasks of manned aircraft, it is not that difficult to think of uav’s with impressive endurance and armament to challenge conventional thinking. Maybe not tomorrow, but if the Chinese are thinking about 2050 for reuniting with Taiwan that is not that strange. So carriers as the battleships of today?

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pedestrian May 23, 2008 at 9:09 am

China has plans to build two aircraft carrier. Varyag is to be rebuilt as an aircraft for training purpose. There is another plan to build an aircraft carrier, based on China’s original design. This was mentioned by a PLA official. Varyag was found in Dairen years ago with yellow coating painting on the deck that indicates use for take off and landings of aircrafts. It was rumored that China had plans to purchase fifty Su-33 from Russia, but in recent years the military officials of Russia has been irritated of reverse engineering and threats of cheap copy models of Russian vehicles and weapons resulting in a decline of military exports from Russia to China, and probably resulting China to give up with Su-33, and use Israeli fighter program based J-12 fighter instead for its aircraft carrier. Of course we should also not forget Russians are very aware with hatred and fear of China. Russian intel had good relations with China in the past, but distrust in the military of Russia is even strong today. It is rumored that Russian experts were paid and invited to China to rebuild the Varyag, which China lacked experience. It is also rumored Varyag will be a non-nuclear aircraft carrier, limiting its operation time at sea. While the refined Varyag will be used for training purpose for a certain period, it is uncertain if the refined Varyag may change its prupose from training to be deployed for missions ready for a battle. It is clear that China has plans to build aircraft carriers and the threat of the offensive capacity of these carriers are a real concern for America, a challenge in the Pacific and a threat of sea lanes with tankers heading to America.

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pedestrian May 23, 2008 at 9:13 am

>Maybe not tomorrow, but if the Chinese are
>thinking about 2050 for reuniting with Taiwan
2050? Are you talking about the leaked “National Strategy 2050″ map of China Ministry Foreign Affairs which has Taiwan, Korea, and Japan occupied by China?

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Ed May 23, 2008 at 9:37 am

The Varyag, aka a Kuznetsov class carrier, which can only carry an Air complement of about 30-40 aircraft at most. The Minsk, an older Kiev class carrier, the same class as the Admiral Ghorshkhov that India is trying to get, which carries even less aircraft. These will only be used near China except for Goodwill tours.
I think there is a reason why China would want to get these ready now, Japan has a flat-top again. The Japanese and the Chinese still have their rivalries, both with the past and now with both of their economic successes. Korea has even produced a flat-top of sorts in their Dokdo class which will be more of an LSD than a CV. Australia even has an LSD with the ability to launch Aircraft. The United States is building ever more advanced carriers with larger complements of aircraft to replace its older Kitty Hawk and eventually Nimitz class CVNs.
Eventually even the UK will have some larger carriers to replace its Invincible Class ships.
So with so many world powers around them having aviation as part of their fleets, China knows it has to get on the ball here. They know any conflict with us will involve 2 or more of our Carriers and they have to have some type of way to counter that threat with their own way to further project their air power. UAVs do not render a CV obsolete, even by 2050. UAVs and UCAVs will only grow larger and the ability to carrier a vast air wing of them will need a CV to do so.

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Rob C May 23, 2008 at 11:22 am
Peter May 23, 2008 at 12:40 pm

Theses aircraft carriers, if ever built, will be no match for even a Nimitz-class US carrier. The new Ford class will be even more invincible.

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C May 14, 2011 at 2:57 am

With ASBM these US carriers are just sitting ducks waiting to be sunk

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George May 23, 2008 at 1:39 pm

Peter, sorry to say, no aircraft carrier is invincible. (Except the HMS Invincible.) If it floats, it can be sunk. Look what happened to the unsinkable Titanic, Bismarck and Yamato. However, although aircraft carriers would be targets, they are also the best-protected ships in the fleet. Go Navy!!

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Ed May 23, 2008 at 1:42 pm

Peter,
No ship is ever invincible, even if it is named so. The goal for the chinese is not to be able to go 1 on 1 with a Nimitz or a Ford class carrier and come out on top. Remember, this is about deterrence rather than being a serious competitor to a supercarrier.
Remember, China doesn’t even have that large of a Blue Water Navy, minus some destroyers and submarines, they are mainly built for territorial waters around the South China Sea, the Taiwan Straits and the North China Sea.
If China does get one of these operational, the carrier might not be the threat, the aircraft sure will be, especially if they have the SU-33 before we have the F-35 out there. They can also be used to tie down our naval resources to deal with it.
Remember, you don’t need to even fire to be considered a threat and this would be a big statement of power and military prowess for the dragon of the east.

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FOARP May 23, 2008 at 1:49 pm

No mention of the choosing of a name and serial number for the Varyag, nor of the reports of work having been done on her since 2002.
Really this piece has no real new content in it, quite disappointing.

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pedestrian May 23, 2008 at 2:41 pm

>nor of the reports of work having been done on her since 2002.
You recieve an F for not doing your homework.

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Chris May 23, 2008 at 2:56 pm

Although China may not be capable or interested in restoring these two carriers, it does show their interest in expeditionary force capabilities.
We know they got pie in the face when they couldn’t get their troops and equipment to their war games with Russia on time. They’re not likely going to let that happen again.
This story (and more so their sub’s) also shows China’s military progression in understanding they will need to project their fighting capabilities beyond their geographical region to protect their interests.
Make no mistake, China’s grown up and wants the ability to fight anywhere anytime…something the West has done for some time.

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displacedjim May 23, 2008 at 7:04 pm

“It is clear that China has plans to build aircraft carriers and the threat of the offensive capacity of these carriers are a real concern for America, a challenge in the Pacific and a threat of sea lanes with tankers heading to America.”
Yes, *after* they actually finally start building them, finish building them, make them operational with an airwing, learn how to use them, etc., etc.

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Dennis May 23, 2008 at 7:52 pm

Is it just me, or does China just need longer range aircraft and a fleet of air-refulers to cover just about all of the territory they are looking to “protect”.
Including Tiawan….

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pedestrian May 24, 2008 at 12:05 pm

>Yes, *after* they actually finally start building them, finish building them, make them
>operational with an airwing, learn how to use them, etc., etc.
The threat is not just the aircraft carrier alone, but the desires of expanding its force through building an aircraft carrier. After? That kind of thinking will allow another attack on Pearl Harbor.

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Jay May 24, 2008 at 8:07 pm

This is in response to Ed’s post at May 23, 2008 01:42 PM…..China may not have much of a blue water navy but neither did the Soviet Union until after the Cuban missile crisis..and then they went on a crash building spree to try and catch up with the US Navy. One question on my part, does China even have ship yards capable of building any carriers 70K tons or better?? I honestly don’t know

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Ed May 27, 2008 at 8:13 am

To Jay,
If they a shipyard capable of building their own SSBNs, then I would presume they are well on their way to doing so.
To the responder talking about long range air craft with a fleet of aerial refuelers. Those tankers are the major crutch in that plan. A good Aegis screen would make short work of them, especially with the missiles we have that are capable of knocking out Satelites and Ballistic Missiles. Best way to take out that threat? Wait until they are a good distance over the pacific, use F-22s to take out their tankers and wait for the inevitable panic of no more fuel and that even longer journey home. Then we let the Aegis take out any of them bold enough to press home the attack.
A Pearl Harbor Strategy would be faulty since we know how to use Radar now, remember in 1941, they detected the Japanese planes but they failed to heed the warning of the radar.
As for the fully manned moonbase, what moonbase? They just recently launched their first manned space mission and it was similar to the mercury missions we launched in the 50s-60s.
Control of Taiwan, you do not need longer range aircraft to do it, its a relatively short hop across the strait to hit that island and the Chinese do have bases close enough already.
They wouldn’t go for Taiwan unless one of 2 things happen. The big one is a Taiwan that declares its independence. The other is a chinese leadership that feels they can take Taiwan and not worry about the economic and military reprecussions after. The second is the most dangerous course of action.
On a side note, I think China will be reeling from the earthquake. Sad as it may be, it will cause major effects to the Chinese military expansion plans for probably the next 5-10 years.

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WR May 28, 2008 at 2:48 pm

“You recieve an F for not doing your homework.”
You receive a 0% for not correcting him adequately.

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Shannon September 2, 2008 at 6:44 pm

There are weapons that would make Carriers of no real threat, High Energy Lasers, which the Chinese have invested lots of money into, and one US Official said that they believe China may be more advanced in their laser technology than even the US.Lasers would surely sink carriers and overthrough their threat capabilities.I notice China has been building modern warships with advanced capabilities, and Submarines that will increase their Nuclear Strategic Offensive,plus they recently claimed they were going to increase their Nuclear arsenal,and update thier missle systems,and they are working on their own stealth fighters(they look very capable).Look around a lot of nations are building up the Military, and Military Capabilities, US,Britian,Russia,China,India,Iran,and Syria.Jesus said their would be Wars and Rumours of Wars

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Genghis March 29, 2009 at 11:34 pm

USA has been the preeminent power for only 50 years and its economic meltdown also melted its Roman dream of devastating the world with weapons of mass destrution. But wait, who was the preeminent power for 80% of the last 5,000 years? Here’s the answer:
http://forum.atimes.com/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=6364

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Chris April 21, 2009 at 10:12 am

While it is clear that the Chinese have a great deal of intererest in aquiring a large scale, blue water navy capability that includes the acquisition of aircraft carriers, please bear in mind that the effective and safe operations of such ships will take a reasonable amount of time. Air operations at sea are no simple matter, as the Russians continue to find out. The inhererent corporate knowledge to truly understand air operations will come only after an investment of time, and until the Chinese acquire that practical knowledege, their navy will remain a somewhat brown water fleet with aspirations of something larger and more sustained. Round the clock air operations and all the support mechanisms that are involved(refueling in the air, vertical replenishment, command and control,land attack targeting data) will only become better after quite a few years of trial and error and represent no near term threat to the U S Navy, at least on a global scale. Of course, having a viable carrier threat may become a regional security issue that may force Japan, and other, to significantly increase their own air assets at sea.

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stephen February 4, 2010 at 5:16 pm

One thing is for sure,China really should have carriers on the go ( several i would say).I'm sure they are building them already and i would keep an eye on Shanghai as the final assembly location.( they have the space there ).Even their current humanitarian and security operations are showing a need for them.What must be realised is this changes the ball game somewhat as China's strategy will start to look less defensive in nature.Though i don't think the US will be too worried unless they build several. ( the US has 10-12 approx. ).Also they will need to build entire carrier groups ,not just single ships but a destroyer,frigate or two,supply ships ,weapons systems.Aircraft carriers are vulnerable far from home without a nearby base to supply and protect them, but it is evident that China has already started acquiring overseas bases.I would bet my life on the appearance of at least two carrier groups initially in the near future.

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phil June 24, 2010 at 7:50 pm

I think all of you are pretty well,,, naiive no doubt we are talking about china here .The next ultimate super power in the whole flippin world they are massing a brutal arrmement. bigger than you can imagine. by the time they are done it would take the whole world to take them on . only with nucs. we would stand a chance. they have a lot of secrets up there sleeves just like the states .it wont take china long to catch up . glad I wont be here to see it all go down …. and it WILL go down

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Camrober August 7, 2010 at 4:38 pm

If China looks like doing another Pearl Harbour in the future we can always slap a trade embargo on them. Australia can stop exporting coal, iron ore, gas and other industrial raw materials and energy to China though this would severly impact the Australian economy.

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John Booker August 12, 2010 at 7:55 am

And what has China done to achieve the label as aggressors ? I have a long list
of US activities that could categorize the US as aggressors. As for stopping exporting
coal to China. How is this in Australia's interests ? I don't think US interests are necessarily
Australias interests ?

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LockMan September 6, 2010 at 7:59 am

At least for the last 1000 years, China has never been an agressor. unlike western powers who colonized many nations, created slavery, many other horrible things. Please see ourselves in the mirror before pointing to others.

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Buster he Body Crab November 27, 2010 at 6:17 am

China not aggressors for 1000 years?
Go visit Tibet. Opps, sorry there is no Tibet. It was absorbed by communist China, via military force.

And there has been a lot of ongoing killing to back that up. Especially killing of unarmed peoples.

This is not saying that almost all nations, that had the ability to be aggressors, were innocent, as China also is aggressive. But just showing your comment quite in error.

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Benjamin November 27, 2010 at 11:43 am

Don't forget about Vietnam during the mid to late 70's.

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skf August 15, 2011 at 3:09 am

The Chinese is a peaceful people by nature.In its long history,the Chinese Han has had never invaded any country.In fact in the late 19th century and early 20th century,it was humilated by both the Japanese and the Western powers of the time.America has shown its navy might by sending its aircraft carriers to cruise near the Chinese coastline in its navy drill with Korean and the Japanese recently. What can China do?
Nothing! Because its Navy is not strong enough to stop the American. Only when China is strong will America and others respect her. And the chinese people is resolute in this aspect, to become strong and be respected!.

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Gary February 1, 2012 at 6:23 am

During the Ming dynasty the Chinese had a massive fleet which they used for gunboat diplomacy and to attack and invade other countries that didn't bow to their rule. So I find it a bit strange that the Chinese say they are peaceful and have never invaded another country, they actually pioneered the methods the US uses today.

This obsession China has with obtaining aircraft carriers stems from a desire to return to the days of the great fleet led by Admiral Zheng-He. They want to once again exert their influence on other countries, especially in the South China Sea. Except this time the US also has a great fleet and the members of ASEAN are relying on it for protection, this is why the US was invited to join the organisation.

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