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.