"China's carrier has gone to sea" was the headline of one Asian newspaper. The event -- the story implied -- marked the long-awaited operational debut of the former Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag. In reality, the ship got underway with harbor tugs providing the power, moving the ship from a pier in the port of Dalian to a nearby dry dock, a "voyage" of about two miles.
As of this writing, no major work on the ship has been observed since she arrived at Dalian in northeastern China on 3 March 2002. The ship was painted a few years ago, but little other effort has gone into the unfinished giant despite periodic press claims that the carrier was being "clandestinely" completed.
While the ship was being towed to the dry dock on 27 April the Varyag was extensively photographed. Those photos reveal much about the ship: She rode high in the water and, with the lack of "patches" on her flight deck, it is obvious that engines had not been installed in the ship. Her flight deck lacks arresting cables and operational markings, and her island structure is void of the aerials, electronic domes, and radar antennas that inundate aircraft carriers.
The question is: Why has the Varyag moved into a dry dock. A number of reasons are possible for her brief voyage and dry docking. These include:
(1) Completing the carrier -- which was laid down at the Nikolayev South shipyard as the Soviet Riga in the Ukraine in 1985. This would involve the complex task of installing engines and other machinery (assuming that they are now available), auxiliary equipment, messing and berthing facilities, radars and other electronic equipment, etc.
(2) Carrying out general maintenance on the hulk, including cleaning her underwater hull, and taking other measures to simply preserve the Varyag until a definite decision is made concerning her eventual fate.
(3) Permitting naval architects and others to examine the ship's underwater hull, possibly to assist in efforts to design and construct an indigenous Chinese aircraft carrier.
There can be no question but the Chinese Navy's leadership wants to acquire aircraft carriers, primarily to provide air cover for naval operations in the South China Sea, an area of great interest to China because of offshore oil activities. In long-range planning, the Chinese may also be considering their increasing political and economic interests in Africa and South America. However, despite periodic press reports -- some saying that the first Chinese carrier will be completed this year -- there is still no publicly available evidence that construction of such ships has begun in China. Indeed, even commercial satellites would have detected such efforts.
Chinese shipyards, which are producing advanced missile destroyers and nuclear-propelled submarines as well as large merchant ships, can certainly build a large aircraft carrier. Completion of the ship -- which would take probably four years or more from the start of construction -- would have to be followed by a lengthy working up period, with extensive ship and then aircraft trials and qualifications. Thus, with at least a year from the decision to build such a ship until actual construction would start because of the need to order components and materials, if that decision were made today the first Chinese carrier could be ready in about six or seven years.