Sea Trials Expected for China’s 1st Carrier
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — China is expected to begin harbor trials of its first aircraft carrier this summer, with near-sea and open-sea trials starting next year, a Taiwan defense official said.
But aircraft for the Soviet-built Varyag are not expected to be ready for at least two years, and escorts and support ships for a carrier battle group are at least five to 10 years off.
Photos of the Varyag indicate it is being outfitted with an active phased array radar, similar to the U.S. Aegis radar system; a 30mm close-in weapon system; and the Chinese FL-3000 Flying Leopard air defense missile system. The deployment of the FL-3000 “would appear to be a logical Chinese approach to pursue defense in depth against opposing anti-ship cruise missiles,” said Andrew Erickson, a China defense analyst at the U.S. Navy War College.
Erickson said it’s not clear how operationally effective the Varyag will be.
“Mastering the complex system of systems in carrier-based, high-intensity, operationscapable air power that is a modern operational aircraft carrier will likely require considerable time, investment and even risk to valuable pilots and aircraft,” he said.
Still, the carrier’s presence is “already being felt” in the region, a “loud declaration that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is now a blue water force,” said Dean Cheng, a China defense specialist at the Heritage Foundation. Yet not much is truly known about China’s carrier program.
Beijing has not even announced the name of the vessel. Western guesses include Shi Lang, after the Ming-Qing Dynasty naval admiral who conquered Taiwan in 1681, and Liu Huaqing, after the father of China’s modern navy.
China bought the Varyag in 1998 from Ukraine via a Hong Kong company that claimed it would turn the ship into a casino in Macau. The ship was instead transported to Dalian, where refitting began.
Ukraine also helped launch China’s development of the fighter jets that will fly from the Varyag. In 2001, it sold a prototype of the Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-borne fighter to Shenyang Aircraft Corp. Last year, photos surfaced of the J-15 Flying Shark, which looks like a duplicate of the Su-33. The J-15 is expected to be ready for deployment no sooner than two years from now.
Taiwan defense analysts speculate that the Varyag’s first deployment will be a circumnavigation of their self-ruling island, or perhaps a partial retracing of the route the Imperial Japanese Navy took leading to its 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Lin Chong Pin, a former Taiwan vice defense minister, said such a stunt would “backfire,” and “destroy their efforts at winning the hearts and minds” of the Taiwanese people.
Lin said the Chinese navy would most likely use the carrier in the South China Sea, not the western Pacific, where the PLAN operates a large fleet of submarines.
Erickson said a Chinese carrier would likely only “serve as a target” if a limited war broke out with a high-tech adversary such as the U.S. or Japan — that is, “a Taiwan scenario.” But he said a carrier might seem more intimidating to neighbors in the South China Sea, which China has declared a core national interest.
Cheng said conflicts might arise over sea lanes in the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait, which are vital to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
The PLAN is conducting its eighth rotation of anti-piracy patrols off the Gulf of Aden, thus putting “the rest of Asia on notice that its forces can and will be found around the world,” he said.