In China sailors and
civilians working on the former Russian aircraft carrier Varyag, report that
the ship will soon be officially renamed to the Shi Lang (after the Chinese
general who took possession of Taiwan in
1681, the first time China ever paid any attention to the island). The Chinese
have been refurbishing the Varyag, one of two Kuznetsov class that Russia began
building in the 1980s, for several years now.
The Varyag has been tied up in a
Chinese shipyard at Dailan since 2002. While the ship is under guard, it can be
seen from a nearby highway. From that vantage point, local military and naval
buffs have noted that some kind of work is being done on the ship. The only
visible signs of this work are a new paint job (in the gray shade used by the
Chinese navy) and ongoing work on the superstructure (particularly the tall
island on the flight deck.) Many workers can be seen on the ship, and material
is seen going into (new stuff) and out of (old stuff) the ship. The new
contracts are believed to be for more equipment for the Varyag, in addition to
the non-custom stuff already going into the ship.
Originally the Kuznetsovs were
conceived of as 90,000 ton, nuclear powered ships, similar to American carriers
(complete with steam catapults). Instead, because of the cost, and the
complexity of modern (American style) carriers, the Russians were forced to
scale back their goals, and ended up with the 65,000 ton (full load ) ships
that lacked steam catapults, and used a ski jump type flight deck instead.
Nuclear power was dropped, but the Kuznetsov class was still a formidable
design. The thousand foot long carrier normally carries a dozen navalized
Su-27s (called Su-33s), 14 Ka-27PL anti-submarine helicopters, two electronic
warfare helicopters and two search and rescue helicopters. But the ship can
carry up to 36 Su-33s and sixteen helicopters. The ship carries 2,500 tons of
aviation fuel, allowing it to generate 500-1,000 aircraft and helicopter
sorties. Crew size is 2,500 (or 3,000 with a full aircraft load.) Only two
ships of this class exist; the original Kuznetsov, which is in Russian service,
and the Varyag. Currently, the Kuznetsov is operating in the Mediterranean.
The Chinese have been in touch with
Russian naval construction firms, and may have purchased plans and technology
for equipment installed in the Kuznetsov. Some Chinese leaders have quipped
about having a carrier by 2010 (this would have to be a refurbished Varyag).
Even that would be an ambitious schedule, and the Chinese have been burned
before when they tried to build new military technology in a hurry.