September 14, 2012:
Apparently the sea trials for China's first aircraft carrier have gone well because the ship was recently assigned a hull number (16, which was pretty obvious to all nearby as shipyard workers painted it on the hull) and given its official name: Liaoning. Since 2008, it was widely believed that the official name would be 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 carrier, formerly the Russian Varyag, was instead officially named after the province in which it has spent the last five years being refurbished. This latest change, naming the largest ship in the fleet after a province, will not offend Taiwan, or anyone else, and is in line with the Chinese, and international, custom of naming the largest ships in the fleet after provinces.
Liaoning has been to sea ten times since it began sea trails 13 months ago. The longest trip was two weeks. So far, the Liaoning has been at sea for three months out of the last 13. All preparations have been made for flight operations, which have not taken place yet.
The Liaoning has apparently performed well during these extended sea trials. Six months ago some aircraft were spotted on the flight deck. This was probably to make sure aircraft could be moved around the deck, and down to the hanger deck, without any problems. Last year China confirmed that the Liaoning will primarily be a training carrier. The Chinese Navy is supposed to take possession of the Liaoning later this year. The Chinese apparently plan to station up to 24 jet fighters and 26 helicopters on the Liaoning.
Liaoning 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 Kuznetsovs were 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 built 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/ Liaoning.
China is believed to be building the first of several locally designed aircraft carriers but little is known of this project. The only official announcements have alluded to the need for two or three aircraft carriers, in addition to the Liaoning. Construction of such large ships has not yet been seen in any shipyard.