For more photos of China's aircraft carrier, click here.
It's finally official. China's first aircraft carrier, named Liaoning after the province in which it was refitted, has just been commissioned and delivered to the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). On Sept. 25, President Hu Jintao, who also chairs the Central Military Commission, presided over a ceremony at a Dalian naval base. Joining him were Premier Wen Jiabao, PLAN Commander Wu Shengli, and other top officials. All must have felt the weight of history on their shoulders as they witnessed the unfulfilled ambitions of their civilian and military predecessors.
This milestone was a long time coming. One of Wu's distant predecessors had first proposed a carrier for China's navy in 1928. At the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, Premier Zhou Enlai and the PLAN commander at the time advocated carrier development, and Chairman Mao Zedong made a supportive speech in 1958. Yet their aspirations were stymied by the far more immediate priorities of domestic ideological campaigns and countering Soviet military pressure amid economic autarky and political isolationism. Subsequently, Gen. Liu Huaqing -- PLAN commander from 1982 to 1987 and Central Military Commission vice chairman from 1992 to 1997 -- fervently advocated carrier development and initiated studies of foreign technologies and Chinese options.
The procurement and refitting of Varyag, the Ukrainian carrier hull that served as the basis for Liaoning, was an odyssey in itself. The hull was purchased in 1998, but one-and-a-half years of Sino-Turkish negotiations were required to ensure its passage through the Bosphorus. Varyag then began a costly, storm-plagued voyage around Africa in 2001 and did not reach Dalian until 2002. China's formal carrier program, termed "048," was officially approved in August 2004 under Hu's chairmanship of the CMC, making Liaoning's recent commissioning a centerpiece of his military legacy and one of his last acts in office.
The PLAN's possession of an aircraft carrier is a great public relations booster for the Chinese military and suggests that Chinese diplomacy will be backed by an even bigger stick in East and Southeast Asia, and possibly beyond. Yet the stick was hard to come by and remains far from a potent tool. In fact, Liaoning has not yet demonstrated the capacity for aircraft launches or landings, which is the essence of carrier operations. Why has it taken so long to get to this point, which is not itself militarily decisive?
First, China Shipbuilding Industry Corp. essentially had to start from scratch on the carrier. Fabricating a carrier hull is not easy, but a modern shipbuilding industry like China's, with yards capable of building supertankers, liquefied natural gas tankers, and large bulk carriers, can bend the requisite steel. This time, Varyag offered a pre-made hull. But on such a massive vessel, the devil is in the details. And for a carrier, the devil manifests itself hundreds of separate times; parts must not only be built, but they must also be integrated into a working set of synchronized systems. Some systems are geared to the maritime dimension, some to the air, and some to both, which imposes very different sets of requirements and characteristics. In short, it is a logistical nightmare to achieve the unforgiving performance levels required of carrier operations.
With respect to hardware, unique subsystems such as aircraft storage spaces and arresting cables to allow aircraft to land must be built and installed. China's state shipbuilders have thus far been very tight-lipped on how they procured the guts to fill in the essentially empty hull they received. Our hunch is that some parts came from Russia and Ukraine, while a good portion came from Chinese ship-subcomponent suppliers that tooled up and built strong human-capital bases as the PLAN ramped up orders for advanced surface combatants like the Type 052C (Luyang II-class) destroyer and submarines like the Type 041 (Yuan-class).
On the human side, China has had to develop substantial domestic shipbuilding and subcomponent-production expertise in order to get its first carrier into service. Now the country must learn how to actually use it. Becoming a proficient carrier operator is important because the vessel's initial diplomatic intimidation and influence value will fade unless China can demonstrate an ability to employ the ship competently to an extent that suggests real war-fighting ability.