by DAVID AXE
After more than a decade of work, China’s first aircraft carrier is nearly ready for sea trials. The U.S. Navy, which maintains five supercarriers plus an equal number of big-deck assault ships in the Pacific, has reacted calmly. In April, Adm. Robert Willard, Pacific Command commander, said the Chinese carrier, reportedly named Shi Lang after a famed Chinese general, will pose a mostly symbolic threat, influencing perceptions more than it does the actual regional balance of power.
There’s good reason for Washington’s equanimity. It’s unclear how effective the Chinese carrier will be. Shi Lang lacks a balanced air wing, a large number of capable escorts plus the ability to coordinate with China’s modest nuclear-submarine force. Moreover, it’s possible that China’s first carrier really isn’t very Chinese. An apparent high level of foreign assistance — from Ukraine, in particular — in preparing Shi Lang and her air wing could cast into doubt Beijing’s ability to support the vessel, and produce additional ships like her.
This much we know for sure: Shi Lang is actually a refurbished Soviet vessel, assembled in Ukraine in the 1980s and originally intended to commission as Varyag. She would have been the Soviet Union’s, now Russia’s, second full-size carrier, after the mechanically-troubled Admiral Kuznetsov. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the floor fell out of the Russian military budget, Ukraine in 1998 obligingly sold the incomplete Varyag to a Chinese company that publicly said it planned to turn the vessel into a casino.
The casino plan was a thin cover, of course, and tugboats dragged Varyag to Dalian shipyard in northeast China, where she began her slow transformation into Shi Lang. Workers removed Soviet electronics and weaponry, reconditioned and repainted the ship and installed systems compatible with existing Chinese naval gear.
Ukrainian assistance reportedly did not end with the sale. Varyag arrived in Dalian without engines. Powerplants for ships and airplanes have proved some of the most difficult items for Chinese military contractors to design and produce, so observers were doubtful Shi Lang would receive purely Chinese engines. By late 2010, heat could be seen rising from Shi Lang‘s stacks, a clear indication that her powerplant was active, but until this month it no one outside of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and its allies knew for sure where the motors had come from.
Then Russian media reported that the engines, like Shi Lang‘s hull, are Ukrainian — and that Ukraine moreover had sent a delegation to China’s Harbin Boiler Works to advise Chinese engineers on eventually producing its own large gas turbines, the kind suitable for naval vessels.
The revelation should not have come as a surprise. In the late 1990s, the China and Ukraine enjoyed close commercial and military ties. Besides acquiring Varyag, Beijing also purchased an Su-33 naval fighter from Ukraine that Chinese engineers later reverse-engineered and copied as the J-15. That aircraft, which appeared in naval colors for the first time this year, will form the backbone of Shi Lang‘s air wing.
But in subsequent years, the countries’ relationship soured, for the same reason Russia and China grew apart. Moscow has complained that Beijing illegally copies and even exports Russian-designed weaponry, robbing Russia of badly-needed revenue. A Ukrainian source told Russian media that a continuing close relationship with Beijing “is not in line with our economic interests.”
Chinese intelligence tried to steal information that Beijing earlier might have simply paid for. In February, a Ukrainian court sentenced Aleksandr Yermakov to a six-year prison term for attempting to transfer to Chinese spies classified information on Ukraine’s land-based practice landing strip for carrier planes, located in Crimea.
Despite Yermahov’s arrest, the Chinese have succeeded in creating their own practice landing field, apparently modeled on the Crimea airstrip.
By the same token, weakening ties won’t stop Shi Lang from taking to sea. Her engines are installed, her J-15 fighters are in testing and aviators are already training at the practice airfield, all thanks to Ukrainian support.
But if Ukraine withholds similar assistance in the future, Beijing could find it difficult to sustain Shi Lang‘s operations, to say nothing of building additional carriers. What happens when Shi Lang‘s engines break down? What if the J-15s prove to have design faults resulting from their Xeroxed origins?
If Chinese industry can’t devise its own fixes, and quickly, the PLAN could find itself in possession of an aircaft carrier with no aircraft, and that can’t leave port.