China’s first aircraft carrier, originally launched in 1988 as the Soviet Navy aircraft carrier Varyag and later purchased from Ukraine in 1998 for conversion into an operational aircraft carrier. Commissioned into PLA Navy service in September 2012 as Liaoning, with hull number ‘16’ and the class name Type 001.
Varyag is the second hull of the Soviet Navy Project 1143.5 (Admiral Kuznetsov class) aircraft carrier. Design work was undertaken by the Nevskoye Planning and Design Bureau. The 67,500 t vessel, originally named Riga, was laid down at the Nikolayev South Shipyard (formerly Shipyard 444) in Nikolayev on 6 December 1985 and launched on 4 December 1988. It was renamed Varyag in July 1990.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the ownership of the vessel was transferred to Ukraine. Construction stopped by 1992 due to a lack of funding. By then, 70% of the construction had been finished. The vessel was structurally completed but without weapons, electronics, or propulsion. China first expressed interest in purchasing the Varyag in 1992. Chinese officials inspected the vessel stationed at the dock of the Nikolayev South Shipyard, but the negotiations were fruitless due to dispute over price. As a result, the unfinished Varyag remained at the dock unattended for six years.
In 1998, the vessel was put up for auction and bought by a Macau-based Chinese company Chong Lot Travel Agency for US$20 million, three times the normal scrap price for similar large ships, for conversion into a floating Casino and amusement park. The contract with Ukraine prohibited the buyer from using the vessel for military purposes.1
In 1999, 11 years after its launch, Varyag finally left the dock of the Nikolayev South Shipyard, towed by several high-power tug boats on its way to the Far East. However, the vessel was refused to pass through the Bosporus Strait by the Turkish government on the ground that the unpowered vessel posed too much risk for other ships as well as facilities in the strait. Varyag was stationed near the strait for three years. It was only after the Chinese government intervened and handed the Turkish government US$1 million as a guarantee bond that the vessel was finally approved to continue its journey in 2002.1
After a troublesome journey, Varyag finally arrived at the Dalian Shipyard in northern China in March 2002 and was stationed there under tight security. By then it became apparent that the vessel was not going to be turned into an amusement park. Instead, it was handed to the PLA Navy for research and restoration. Along with the vessel, Ukraine also handed all of the vessel’s blueprints and design documents to China.
In 2005, the vessel was moved to a dry dock in the Dalian Shipyard painted in the PLA Navy grey, with scaffoldings erected around. The restoration work was completed in late 2006. The aircraft was then moved to another dry dock in April 2009 to install engines and other heavy equipment. System installation commenced in late 2010. By March 2011 the island superstructure was almost complete, with painting finished and scaffolding removed.
In June 2011, General Chen Bingde, Chief of Staff of the PLA, confirmed that China was building an aircraft carrier—the first official acknowledgement of the existence of such a project. On 27 July, the Chinese Ministry of National Defence (MND) announced that a second-hand aircraft carrier was being refitted for research, testing, and training purposes. The first four-day sea trial of the vessel began in August, followed by a second set of trials in December, before the vessel was returned to the shipyard for final touches.
On 25 September 2012, the aircraft carrier was officially commissioned into the PLA Navy as Liaoning, with the class name Type 001 and hull number 16. On 23 November, PLA Naval Air Force J-15 fighters successfully performed ski-jump take-off, touch-and-go, and arrested landing from the Liaoning for the first time. It was estimated that crew training would continue for 4 to 5 years before the aircraft carrier reaches its full operational capacity.
In November 2016, Chinese state media citing government sources claimed that the country’s first aircraft carrier was “combat ready”.2 On 25 December of the same year, a PLA Navy formation including Liaoning set off for the western Pacific for an open-sea training exercise, after carrying out a live fire exercise in the Bohai Sea a week before. On its way back, the aircraft carrier along with its battle group sailed through the Taiwan Strait.34
In late June 2017, Liaoning, under the escort of two missile destroyers and a missile frigate, set off from its homeport in Qingdao for a 22-day training exercise and goodwill visit mission. Following the training exercise, the carrier battle group visited Hong Kong on 7—11 July for the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the handover of the former British colony to China.5
Liaoning features a short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) arrangement. Aircraft take-off is assisted by a bow ski-jump angled at 14°. The flight desk is fitted with arresting wires. Two starboard lifts carry the aircraft from the hangar to the flight deck. Up to 8 fighters can be handled on the flight deck at the same time.
The carrier’s flying group consists of 20 Shenyang J-15 carrier-based multirole fighters, with 40 pilots.6 In addition, the carrier also carries 10 to 14 helicopters, including the Changhe Z-18J AEW helicopters and Z-18F ASW helicopter, and the Harbin Z-9D SAR helicopter.
Varyag was originally to be fitted with a Granit (SS-N-9 Shipwreck) anti-ship missile system. The missile launcher was removed before the vessel was sold to China, and the launcher base was removed during the refit to give a larger aircraft hangar space. Instead, the Liaoning relies on short-range air defence missiles, its onboard fighter aircraft, and its escort surface combatants for air defence, and its air power for surface attack.
For air defence, Liaoning is fitted with three 18-cell HHQ-10 (a.k.a. FL-3000N) short-range air-defence missile systems. The missile launcher is similar to the U.S. Navy RIM-116 in arrangement. Derived from the TY-90 short-range air-to-air missile, the HHQ-10 is fitted with a dual passive radio frequency (RF) + imaging infrared (IIR) seeker and has a minimum range of under 500 m and a maximum range of 9,000 m. It can intercept targets 1.5—10 m above the sea surface, with a reaction time of 10 seconds.7
There are also three Type 1130 close-in weapon systems (CIWS). Each system is equipped with a 11-barrel 30-mm cannon, which is fed by two ammunition boxes each holding 640 rounds of ready-to-use ammunition. One magazine would typically hold armour piercing discarding sabot and the other high explosives. The empty cartridge cases are ejected forwards out of the lower part of the mount. The cannon is driven by external power, with a reported maximum cyclic rate of fire of 9,000—10,000 rounds/min, with a chance of hit rate placed at 90 percent against Mach 4 missiles.8 The cannon has a maximum range of 2.5 km against missiles and 3.5 km against aircraft, but targets are typically engaged at a distance of 1,000—1,500 m.9
Liaoning is equipped with the H/LJG346 ‘Dragon Eye’ S-band active phased array radar (APAR) system for air search, with four radar arrays installed on the four sides of the island superstructure.
There is also an H/LJQ-382 E-band air search radar installed at the mast top. The radar is a Chinese copy of the Russian Fregat-M2EM ‘Top Plate’.
Each of the three Type 1130 CIWS includes an H/LJP-349 fire-control radar (J-band) and a Type 4 electro-optical director (EOD) for target engagement.
Other sensors also include:
– Sea search radar;
– Aircraft surveillance radar;
– Navigation radar;
– Datalink antenna;
– SATCOM antenna;
Liaoning is conventionally powered, using a propulsion system similar to that of the Russian Navy Kuznetsov, consisting of eight boilers and four TB-12 steam turbines (45,000 hp each). The vessel is fitted with four shafts with fixed-pitch propellers.10 The TB-12 is not very dissimilar in technology to its ancestor the TB-8, which was copied by the Chinese shipbuilding industry as the Type 453 in the 1970s to power its Type 051 (Luda class) missile destroyers.11
- Type: Conventional aircraft carrier (CV)
- Builder: Nikolayev South Shipyard (Ukraine); Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Co., Ltd.
- Launch: 1988
- In commission: September 2012
- Number: 1
- Displacement (t): 53,050 standard, 59,100 full load
- Length (m): 304.5
- Beam (m): 75
- Draft (m): 8.97
- Propulsion: Steam turbines
- Speed (kn): N/A
- Range (km): N/A
- Complement: 1,960 sea crew, 626 air group.
- Varyag World. 2010. Varyag World – Towage. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.varyagworld.com/towage.php. [Accessed 18 August 2017].
- Jane’s 360. 2016. China’s first aircraft carrier now ‘combat ready’, say Chinese media. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.janes.com/article/65539/china-s-first-aircraft-carrier-now-combat-ready-say-chinese-media. [Accessed 18 August 2017].
- 央视网. 2016. 海军：航母编队首次进行实兵实弹演习. [ONLINE] Available at: http://military.cctv.com/2016/12/15/ARTICMhMK85CLsAzjCatSu0C161215.shtml. [Accessed 18 August 2017].
- 央视网. 2016. 辽宁舰低速通过台湾海峡 台军出动军舰战机跟随监控. [ONLINE] Available at: http://military.cctv.com/2016/12/15/ARTICMhMK85CLsAzjCatSu0C161215.shtml. [Accessed 18 August 2017].
- 环球网. 2017. 辽宁舰圆满完成跨区机动训练任务返回青岛母港. [ONLINE] Available at: http://mil.huanqiu.com/china/2017-07/10989383.html. [Accessed 18 August 2017].
- 人民网. 2017. 专家:辽宁舰已随时能战 未来将配超40名飞行员. [ONLINE] Available at: http://military.people.com.cn/n1/2017/0103/c1011-28995011.html. [Accessed 18 August 2017].
- CASIC brochure for FL-3000N
- International Business Times. 2017. Russia Warns China Has New Type 1130 CIWS, Can Destroy 90% Mach 4 Hypersonic Missiles. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.ibtimes.com.au/russia-warns-china-has-new-type-1130-ciws-can-destroy-90-mach-4-hypersonic-missiles-1397501. [Accessed 18 August 2017].
- 新浪军事. 2017. 深度：解析中国射速上万近防炮 为何比美俄都要先进. [ONLINE] Available at: http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/jssd/2016-04-18/doc-ifxriqqv6183476.shtml. [Accessed 18 August 2017].
- 腾讯新闻. 2015. 纯属谣传：辽宁号被乌克兰爆破发动机切割主轴. [ONLINE] Available at: http://news.qq.com/a/20151012/039371.htm. [Accessed 18 August 2017].
- Best China News. 2016. On the Chinese naval surface naval power system. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.bestchinanews.com/Military/207.html. [Accessed 18 August 2017].