To lull suspicions, Chinese intelligence spread the word that the former Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag steaming from the Black Sea to its shores some weeks ago was designated a floating gambling casino in Macao.
The ruse worked. DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in China report now that the aircraft carrier was never intended for anything so frivolous. In the hands of the Chinese Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN), the craft is being quietly turned back into an air carrier. In fact, the Dalian Shipyward is working under tight security to refit and modernize the huge vessel to raise it to operational status as China’s first aircraft carrier.
Not only that. The Chinese Navy is already busily building its second. A large dome-like structure is being constructed adjacent to the Varyag, beneath which work has begun on a sister to the Varyag.
China promised the Russians from whom it bought the aircraft carrier (one of two Kuznetsov-class carriers dating back to the early 1980s, originally planned for the former Soviet Navy and about 70-80 per cent complete) that it would not be recommissioned. The Russians removed most of its sub-systems, but the propulsion system is apparently intact. Photos indicate that the ship’s exterior is in good condition.
Since at least 1992 there have been reports that China’s Central Military Commission had decided in principle to support the development of a blue water fleet that would include up to three aircraft carriers as early as the end of the decade. Evidence of support for this position was provided by strategic assessments attributed to Chinese military thinkers and planners, who are said to be concerned over the lack of a power projection capability for operations directed against US and Japanese regional forces, Taiwan, the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca and beyond to the Indian Ocean.
During May 1999, the China Science and Technology Association issued a statement that said: “The fact that China is the only permanent UN Security Council member with no aircraft carrier battle group is a handicap which fails to match China’s status.”
The Chinese were not idle, even before they bought Varyag. A simulated flight deck with catapult and arrester wires is said to have been copied from the decommissioned Australian light aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne, which China supposedly bought for scrap during 1984 and rebuilt at a northern Chinese air base.
Yet various earlier reports this year from Chinese sources appeared to indicate that Beijing had indefinitely postponed aircraft carrier development in favor of the development of advanced submarines; these reports were clearly Chinese intelligence disinformation exercises.
A May 1998 report cast doubt that the US$20 million sale of the Varyag would proceed with the Macao firm Agencia Turistica e Diversoes Chong Lot Limitada. This firm was registered in August 1997 under a fictitious local address and controlled by Hong Kong residents Cheng Zhen-shu and Chong Lap-cheung, who have strong connections to PLAN shipbuilding interests. Furthermore, the contract with the Russian arms export agency Rosvoorouzhenie was to have prohibited the use of the vessel for direct military purposes, although the ship’s design and technology render it unsuited to anything else. Nonetheless, Chong Lot applied to the Macao government within a month of its formation for permission to dock the carrier in local waters as a floating hotel or casino. This proposal was at least initially rejected.
In any event, the 67,000 ton Varyag, which was actually owned by the Ukraine as part of the joint Russia-Ukraine Black Sea Fleet, was believed to be in poor, stripped-down condition, difficult to renovate to an operational status at a cost of upwards of US$2 billion.
However, the UK’s Marconi Electronic Systems and France’s Thomson-CSF are reported by some sources to have jointly offered to refit the Varyag for flight operations, navigation, testing and logistics, all co-coordinated through Paris-based trading agent P.J. Masson’s firm IBC 500 and perhaps funded through a barter arrangement with Chinese state-owned enterprises.
While Marconi and Thomson have denied this allegation, they are prime candidates for providing sophisticated technical systems for an indigenous Chinese aircraft carrier program. Both companies are currently thought to be supplying the PLA with other advanced defense technologies ranging from naval destroyer upgrades and AWACS systems to fighter aircraft fly-by-wire, avionics and radar systems.
It is now unclear whether foreign firms will be part of the Varyag refit and the development of new carriers, or whether China will conduct the developments on its own. With its 300 meter flight deck with ski jump, the Varyag should be able to accommodate new generation Chinese aircraft such as a navalized version of the J-10 fighter (possibly with two aero-engines), Chinese versions of the Su-27 fighter-bomber series, and the JH-7 fighter-bomber, as well as helicopters used for resupply, AWACS, ASW, EW, etc. Chinese aircraft carriers may not require conventional steam catapult aircraft launching systems because of the use of the ski-jump system or an innovative electromagnetic system China is believed to have recently developed. Chinese carriers will also likely carry large numbers of surface-to-air, anti-submarine, anti-ship cruise, and land-attack cruise missiles, likely launched from a vertical launch system (VLS).
The Dalian Shipyard (‘Red Flag Number Seven’), Dalian, Liaoning Province, is a state-owned enterprise under the China State Shipbuilding Corporation. It is well equipped to refurbish and construct large warships such as modern aircraft carriers.
It has over 10,000 workers, including some 2,000 technical personnel, occupies an area of some 420,000 square metres, has three shipbuilding slipways for ships of up to 80,000 tons, two slipways for 15,000 dwt ships, a bulk goods dock of 1,475 metres, 22 cranes, one 100 ton revolving floating crane, large hydraulic presses and rollers, and widespread computer-controlled systems, including management information systems and numerically controlled machines.
The Dalian Shipyard built China's first ocean-going supply ships for dry and liquid supplies, and has build shuttle oil tankers of up to 118,000 tons.