Friday, May 29, 2009

The Mystery of the Varyag

Looks like I'm finally close to being done moving. It's a pain. I guess moving is punishment for being a materialistic capitalist swine.

Anyway, wanted to finally get back to posting. Looks like a lot of people have cut way back on their posting. Hopefully it will pick back up. Anyway, on to a post I've had in my head for a while.

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The aircraft carrier Varyag is something I've had my eye on for a while. It's a fascinating story that could have been written by Ian Fleming. China acquired a partially constructed hulk of a Soviet aircraft carrier from Ukraine. The purchase price was way above scrap value. The company that purchased the Varyag was headed by a bunch of retired PLA-Navy officers. They wanted to purchase the vessel for a floating casino in Macau, despite the harbor not being deep enough for a ship the size of the Varyag.

The vessel gets purchased, along with the blueprints, but Turkey won't let it through the Dardanelles because it could sink and block the channel. After intensive diplomatic negotiations, Turkey lets it through. Over many months, the ship is towed to the other side of the world. The Varyag is towed past Macau all the way to China. It arrives not at a civilian port, but a PLAN shipyard. The same day it's tied up to the military wharf, the "casino" company went bankrupt and disappeared.

Varyag World has been covering the story for a while. After it arrived, it sat there for a while. China made several other deals for carriers and carrier aircraft. The carriers were purchased (with blueprints) and slowly scrapped to learn as much as possible about carrier construction. China also purchased several sets of carrier landing equipment to start training pilots.

After a while, the shipyard dry docked the vessel, sandblasted, and painted the vessel and started prepping the deck for takeoffs and landings. Then the Varyag just sat there for a while. Just a few weeks ago, though, the Varyag was brought to a new wharf with many large cranes. The deck is covered with equipment. It looks like the Chinese are adding environmental controls and, finally, propulsion.

Other interesting tidbits: Jane's Information Services reports the PLAN has given it the name "Shi Lang," the first Chinese emperor to capture Taiwan. Could the Varyag be the training platform/stopgap for the first native-built aircraft carriers?

There are a lot more little twists and turns, but that hits some of the high notes. More discussion here.

The other thing that makes the whole saga interesting is carriers might now be a obsolete as big gun battleships were on December 6th, 1941. No surface ship can survive long against a sophisticated foe on the modern battlefield. The military historian Sir John Keegan has said since the Falklands War, surface ships are seriously vulnerable to missile attack. Even the deployment of Close-In Weapons Systems, like the Phalanx don't fully counter the threat. They only counter sea-level missiles. Steeply approaching missiles go right over the protective cover. Also, how long does it take to reload the Phalanx under fire? You can bet, unlike the Exocets and the British during the Falklands, future carriers will have more than 5 missiles to worry about. They'll get cut to ribbons. The only thing in carriers' favor is that the two best ways to hunt a submarine are 1- another sub (included in all carrier battle groups), 2- a squadron of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Helicopters (which carriers just happen to carry).

Supposedly, China has been focusing in on building out their submarine force and saying carriers are just for show. Why the sudden change in thinking?

One final China-related note: "Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang" was just published. Ziyang was the head of China that instituted the economic reforms that launched its incredible economic boom that lasts to this day. He was removed for refusing to take a hard line against the Democratic protesters in Tienanmen Square. His memoirs will give a peak into Chinese politics, a very rare thing.

2 comments:

celcus said...

Clay,

Check out the following which adds some interesting perspective on carrier operations.

http://lefarkins.blogspot.com/2009/05/some-big-news-on-chinese-aircraft.html

The label for naval aviation will bring up more.

And I may be seeing you around the hood...

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