China heralds first aircraft carrier, but vessel not yet ready

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Beijing needs to overcome technical and logistical challenges before its first carrier becomes operational, analysts say
 
  This photo taken on September 24 shows China's first aircraft carrier, a former Soviet vessel called the Varyag, docked after its handover to the People's Liberation Army navy in Dalian, a port in China's northeastern Liaoning Province. China's first aircraft carrier entered service Tuesday, the defense ministry in Beijing said, as the country expands its long-range blue-water fleet at a time of increasing maritime tensions in the region. Photo: AFP

One day before China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, entered service Tuesday (September 25), the Global Times offered three different stories in less than four hours on the status of the much-anticipated battleship.

On September 24, the first story came out expressing uncertainty as military enthusiasts and experts were at odds over whether the ship had been handed over to the People's Liberation­ Army. The Chinese defense ministry declined to comment, the report said.

Over an hour later, another report appeared citing the Chinese-language portal of China News Service that the handover of the 300-meter (990-foot) ship took place in northeast China's port of Dalian after a lengthy refitting by a Chinese shipbuilder.

But almost two hours later, the Global Times put out another report quoting two experts as saying that the ceremony "erroneously described" in media reports as a handover ceremony was in fact just a rehearsal.

Analysts said one possible reason for the hawkish Global Times to tread so carefully is that it knows China may need until the end of the decade to have a fully operational aircraft carrier and a trained crew capable of conducting intensive flight operations.

Despite high expectations that the carrier a refitted, Soviet-era vessel bought from Ukraine will soon become symbol of Beijing's ambition, influence and power, military analysts say China is still short of having a fully tested and operational ship and aircraft.

China's J-15 fighter and Z-8 early warning helicopter are both still in flight tests and late systems development, analysts say. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) will also need to develop the full capacity to operate and maintain the war machines, they add.

"It will take many years to develop a useful operational capability," Sam Roggeveen, a fellow at the Sydney-based think tank Lowy Institute for International Policy, told Vietweek.

Roggeveen said the Americans, Brits and French have generations of experience to draw on for these tasks, while China has to learn from a standing start.

"They will not reach the American, British and French levels of proficiency for perhaps a decade or more, but they should have some type of operational capability well before then," he said.

Long way to go

Reuters reported in August that China had originally bought the refitted carrier, commonly known by its original name, Varyag, in 1998 claiming it wanted to turn the ship, which had been stripped of its engines and anything of military value, into a "floating casino."

The carrier began its first sea trial in August 2011 from Dalian harbor's Xianglujiao Port in China's northeast province of Liaoning.

The Varyag returned to Dalian in northeast China last July after its ninth sea trial, Reuters said, citing official Chinese media reports.

But much is still unclear.

"It is not known how much of the shipboard electronic systems have been installed and tested, such as radars, communications, navigation aids," said Carlo Kopp, the Melbourne-based co-founder of Air Power Australia, an independent military think-tank.

"Also we do not know how much progress the PLA has made with Electro Magnetic Compatibility testing, which is verifying that there are no problems from electronic interference between systems on the ship," said Kopp, who studied China's aircraft carrier aviation program for a published research paper.

The vessel, which is one half the size of an American aircraft carrier, is still at a very limited capability as it will most likely deploy only a small number of fighter jets, he said.

Another major challenge of this ship is the "ski-jump", which allows fighters to take off from the short deck.

Of a handful of nations that deploy militarily effective carriers including India, Russia, France, the US and the UK American carriers do not have this feature. They instead use a steam-powered catapult to fling aircraft off the ship at sufficient speed.

"The US system is much better, as it allows all types of aircraft fighters, bombers, surveillance planes, tankers to take off at higher weight, meaning they can fly further with more ordnance and equipment," said Roggeveen, the Sydney-based analyst.

"The ski jump system severely limits the operational flexibility of China's carrier, and it is expected that when China builds a fully indigenous carrier, it will adopt a version of the US catapult technology," he said.

"˜No advantage'

The Chinese defense ministry named the carrier Liaoning on Tuesday after the northeastern province that is home to China's main naval port city of Dalian, AFP reported.

"The PLA's general armament department, the navy and all comrades participating in the carrier program should make new contributions in promoting China's weaponry construction and safeguarding national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who attended the ceremony in Dalian, was quoted by AFP as saying.

"It will also be of great significance in enhancing national defense power and the country's comprehensive strength."

Admiral Liu Huaqing, the father of China's modern navy who died in 2010, had sought to build China's navy first into a local "green water" force and thereafter, eventually, into a long-range "blue water" navy capable of projecting power regionally, said Andrew Erickson, an analyst at the US Naval War College.

The key to the realization of Liu's vision was an aircraft carrier, Erickson said. Liu reportedly vowed in 1987: "I will not die with my eyes closed if I do not see a Chinese aircraft carrier in front of me."

With the commissioning of the Liaoning, China has rubbed shoulders with the other four members of the United Nations Security Council to deploy an aircraft carrier.

The deployment of the carrier also took place against the backdrop of Beijing's embroilment in escalating maritime tensions with Japan in the East China Sea and Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea.

"The handover of the [carrier] represents another threshold crossed, and will certainly be noticed by neighboring countries, including South Korea and Japan, since they are closest to the carrier's likely new base at Dalian," said Euan Graham, a maritime analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

US allies in the Pacific, such as Japan and Australia, have vented grievances that the carrier would pose "serious threat" to regional security, but such fears are likely exaggerated.

Beijing has repeatedly insisted the carrier poses no threat to its neighbors and will be used mainly for training and research purposes.

 "The vessel gives no advantage to China in the context of the"¦disputes as these islands are well within range of China's land-based aircraft," said Sam Bateman, another expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Of much greater concern in the Southeast Asian region is China's land-based air power, especially the 300 plus J-11 and Su-30MK Flanker fighters, said Kopp, the Melbourne-based expert, adding that these have significant range and mostly carry modern smart bombs and missiles.

"China is building a fighter fleet which will be similar in size and reach to the US Air Force," he said.

"Many in the United States are understating Chinese capabilities for political reasons."

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