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Thayer China’s ‘Game Changer’ – the Varyag Aircraft Carrier?

Thayer China’s ‘Game Changer’ – the Varyag Aircraft Carrier?

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Published by Carlyle Alan Thayer
A critical analysis that China's first aircraft carrier, the Varyag, will be a 'game changer'.
A critical analysis that China's first aircraft carrier, the Varyag, will be a 'game changer'.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Carlyle Alan Thayer on Sep 10, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Thayer Consultancy

ABN # 65 648 097 123

Background Brief: China’s ‘Game Changer’ – the Varyag Aircraft Carrier? Carlyle A. Thayer August 30, 2012

[client name deleted] Regarding the commissioning of China's aircraft carrier Varyag we would appreciate your assessment of the following: 1. Although much media attention has been lavished on China's new aircraft carrier Varyag, is it fair to say that it will be a long time before China will be able to deploy a full carrier strike group? If, so why? If not, why not? ANSWER: The Varyag is an old ship and will be used for training purposes only. It is unlikely the Varyag will be fully operational until after 2015 with many analysts saying it will take longer. Even when it is operational it will only have limited capacities. China will base its future carrier force on the experiences learned with the Varyag. China will need to build an indigenous carrier and master all the technical and logistical difficulties before it is operational. China’s new carrier will then have to learn to operate with other ships in the strike group. There is little solid evidence China has actually begun construction of an indigenous carrier so the appearance of a full carrier strike group is unlikely before 2020 and could possibly take longer. 2. What are the tasks the Chinese need to work through before they have an aircraft they can reliably operate from a carrier? How long will it take to fulfill all those tasks? ANSWER: China has already begun training flight crews to take off and land on a carrier using a shore based mock up. The Varyag can easily embark helicopters. China is also designing and constructing a special aircraft for the carrier, the J-15. China will have to master night time as well as day time landings. It will also have to master landings and takeoffs in foul weather. China will need to have a trained professional crew for maintenance and repair. Finally, China will have to build up experience in handling carrier operations. A typical U.S. carrier handles around one hundred landings and take offs in a day. This will take years of experience for China to develop. 3. What are the specifics that the China’s much-anticipated Varyag still short of? How is China looking to address these shortcomings?

2 ANSWER: The Varyag uses a sky jump to assist take offs. This limits the kinds of aircraft and payloads that can be launched. The Varyag was completely stripped of all serviceable equipment for air operations. China will have to adapt foreign technology or design its own to provide the full range of electronic systems required for full time operations. China will also have to master maintenance, both on land and at sea. China has conducted at least nine sea trials and is gradually moving step by step to incorporate new technology and integrate it. For example, China has yet to develop an effective air defence system to defend the carrier against air attack by fighters using anti-ship cruise missiles. These missiles could ruin the runway and prevent aircraft from taking or landing. 4. Is there any proof to say that China is hyping the capacity of the Varyag and its military might in general? ANSWER: Some Chinese military commentators have certainly hyped the Varyag. Even some western analysts have called it a game changer. But the reality is that it is only a training ship that has not yet become operational. 5. Has there been any other regional power, for instance India, that is also undergoing military upgrade to counter China’s growing military might? What does it mean for the regional territorial sea dispute in the region? ANSWER: India is developing its own naval capacity for deployment primarily in the Indian Ocean, not the South China Sea. India has decided to drop the sky jump from its latest carrier under construction so it can embark aircraft with larger payloads. India seek to exert sea control in waters surrounding the sub-continent. The growth of the Indian Navy will mean that China will be unable to dominate the Indian Ocean for decades in the future. If it tried it would be overextending itself. However, a Chinese aircraft carrier based at Yalong naval base on Hainan could be used to exert sea control over the South China Sea. But such a force would be vulnerable to submarines and air launched anti-ship missiles.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “China’s ‘Game Changer’ – the Varyag Aircraft Carrier?,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, August 30, 2012. Thayer Consultancy Background Briefs are archived and may be accessed at: http://www.scribd.com/carlthayer.

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