Naval Air: Shi Lang Is Official And Armed

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June 9, 2011: In the last few months, the new Chinese aircraft carrier, the Shi Lang (formerly Varyag) has apparently had all of its weapons installed. The government has also officially admitted that the Shi Lang actually exists. Meanwhile, numerous unofficial photos have appeared showing the two main weapon systems that have been installed. Along each side of the ship are, first (near the bow, or front of the vessel) an 18 cell launcher for FL-3000N anti-missile missiles. Aft (rear of the ship), there is another FL-3000N. Right behind that is an AK-1030 automatic cannon. This gives the Shi Lang four FL-3000N and two AK-1030 systems. There may also be four more gun or missile systems amidships (in the middle), two on each side. But no one has gotten a clear photo of these yet. These might be the smaller AK-630.

The AK-1030 is an upgraded (to ten barrels) model of the older AK-730 (seven barrel) and AK-630 (six barrel), close-in anti-missile automatic cannon. All fire 30mm shells at incoming anti-ship missiles. The FL-3000N is similar to the American RAM anti-missile missile system, except that they come in 24 missile and 18 missile launchers and are less accurate.

FL-3000N was only introduced three years ago, and uses smaller missiles than RAM. The FL-3000N missiles have a max range of nine kilometers (about half that for very fast incoming missiles). The 120mm, two meter long missiles use a similar guidance system to RAM, but are not as agile in flight.

Missiles are increasingly preferred over cannon for short range anti-missile defense. Thus over the last decade, the U.S. Navy Phalanx 20mm autocannon anti-missile system has been more frequently replaced by SeaRAM. What's interesting about this is that SeaRAM is basically the Phalanx system, with the 20mm gun replaced with a box of eleven RAM (RIM-116 "Rolling Air Frame") missiles. The Phalanx was developed in the 1970s, and entered service in 1977 (about the same time as the original Russian AK-630).

RAM was developed in the 1980s, and didn't enter service until 1993. RAM has a longer range (7.5 kilometers) than the Phalanx (2-3 kilometers) and was originally designed to be aimed using the ship's fire control systems. Phalanx, on the other hand, has its own radar and fire control system and, once turned on, will automatically fire at any incoming missiles. The latest AK-630/730/1030 operate the same way. This is necessary, as some anti-ship missiles travel at over a 500 meters a second. With SeaRAM, you've got a little more time, and can knock down the incoming missile farther from the ship. This is important, because it was feared that a large, very fast anti-ship missile (which the Russians prefer, and sell to foreigners), even when shot up by Phalanx, might still end up having parts of it slam into the target ship. Since SeaRAM has eleven missiles ready to fire, it can also engage several targets at once, something the Phalanx could not do. The ten barrel Type 1030 is more powerful than Phalanx, with its 30mm shells having a range of four or more kilometers.

The RAM missiles are 127mm in diameter, three meters (9.3 feet) long and weigh 73.6 kg (162 pounds) each. The terminal guidance system is heat seeking. Basically, it uses the rocket motor and warhead from the Sidewinder air-to-air missile, and the guidance system from the Stinger shoulder fired anti-aircraft missile. SeaRAM missiles cost about $450,000 each, which is probably at least 50 percent more than the FL-3000N missiles. SeaRAM is meant to provide protection for combat support ships that normally have no defenses, or at least no combat radars and fire control system. The new LCS will use the SeaRAM as well.

The Shi Lang/Varyag is one of the Kuznetsov class carriers that Russia began building in the 1980s. Originally the Kuznetsovs were to be 90,000 ton, nuclear powered ships, similar to American carriers (complete with steam catapults). Instead, because of the high cost, and the complexity of modern (American style) carriers, the Russians were forced to scale back their plans, and ended up with 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 323 meter (thousand foot) long ship 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 was meant to regularly carry 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.

Like most modern carriers, the only weapons carried are anti-missile systems like AK-1030 and FL-3000N, plus some heavy machine-guns (which are often kept inside the ship, and mounted outside only when needed.) However, Russian practice was been to sometimes install long range anti-ship missiles as well. China may also do this with Shi Lang.

 


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