Tuesday, September 25, 2012

China’s aircraft carrier ‘Liaoning’ is commissioned

PLA soldiers at the commissioning ceremony
After a false alarm earlier this week, it’s now official: China’s first aircraft carrier has been commissioned and delivered to the military

The ex-Varyag, which China purchased from Ukraine — minus the engines, navigation and weapons systems — in 1998, had underwent years of refurbishing work at Dalian Port in northeast China’s Liaoning Province, and sea trials began in August 2011. Earlier this month, China announced that the carrier would be christened Liaoning and was given hull No. 16. Regarded as a “strategic” weapon, the carrier will be under the direct command of the Central Military Commission (CMC) rather than the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) and top generals were present at the ceremony, which occurs at a time of high tensions between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. The timing has little to do with the crisis, however, as the vessel’s entry into service had been scheduled to occur around this time several months ago.

It will be a while before the Liaoning can play a combat role, as it has yet to be fitted with naval aircraft on its deck, and Chinese naval aviators require further training before they can embark on carrier-based operations at sea. For the time being, the Liaoning is expected to  predominantly serve as a training platform while China develops its own carriers, which could enter service by 2020. The commissioning is nevertheless a significant event for China’s ambitions as a major sea power. Until today, China was the only permanent member of the UN National Security Council that did not have operational aircraft carrier capability. 

The Liaoning’s main defenses system consists of four Type 1030 close-in weapons system (CIWS) guns, four AK-630 30mm naval CIWS guns, and four HHQ-10 short-range surface-to-air missiles. Its deck can accommodate between 18 and 30 fixed-wing aircraft (J-11/15) and a number of helicopters (among them Ka-28s and Z-9s).

Type 071 hulls 998, 999 and 989
Although an aircraft carrier could play a role in a Taiwan, East China Sea or South China Sea contingency, a more immediate threat will come from the Type 071 Yuzhao-class amphibious transport docks (LPD). Two Type 071s are currently in service (998 Kunlunshan and 999 Jinggangshan), with a third, 989 (Changbaishan), to be commissioned soon.

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