Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning

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For other ships with the same name, see Varyag (ship).
Liaoning (CV-16)
USNWC Varyag02.jpg
Varyag under tow in the Bosphorus through İstanbul
Soviet UnionUkraine
Name: RigaVaryag
Namesake: Imperial Russian cruiser Varyag
Ordered: 1983
Laid down: December 6, 1985
Launched: December 4, 1988
Completed: Abandoned (68% complete)
Fate: Sold to the Chinese Navy
People's Republic of China
Namesake: Liaoning Province
Builder: Dalian Shipbuilding Industry
Completed: 2011
Commissioned: September 25, 2012
Status: In active service
Badge: The Badge of PLANS Liaoning 16.png
General characteristics for Varyag as originally designed
Class and type: Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier
  • 43,000-tonnes, light[1][2]
  • 53,000 – 55,200-tonnes, standard[1][2][3]
  • 58,600 – 67,500-tonnes, max[1][2]
  • 304.5 m (999 ft) o/a
  • 270 m (890 ft) w/l
  • 75 m (246 ft) o/a
  • 35 m (115 ft) w/l
Draft: 8.97 m (29.4 ft)
Installed power: Steam
  • Steam turbines, 8 boilers, 4 shafts, 200,000 hp (150 MW)
  • 4 × 50,000 hp (37 MW) turbines
  • 9 × 2,011 hp (1,500 kW) turbogenerators
  • 6 × 2,011 hp (1,500 kW) diesel generators
  • 4 × fixed pitch propellers
Speed: 32 knots (59 km/h; 37 mph)
Range: 3,850 nautical miles (7,130 km; 4,430 mi) at 32 knots
Endurance: 45 days
  • 1,960 crew
  • 626 air group
  • 40 flag staff
  • 3,857 rooms
General characteristics for Liaoning after refit
Class and type: Type 001
  • 3 × Type 1130 CIWS
  • 3 × HQ-10 (18 Cell Missile system)[4]
Aircraft carried:

Liaoning (16; Chinese: 辽宁舰; pinyin: Liáoníng Jiàn) is the first aircraft carrier commissioned into the People's Liberation Army Navy Surface Force. It is classified as a training ship, intended to allow the Navy to practice with carrier usage.

Originally laid down as the Admiral Kuznetsov-class multirole aircraft carrier Riga for the Soviet Navy, she was launched on December 4, 1988, and renamed Varyag in 1990.[5] The stripped hulk was purchased in 1998 by the People's Republic of China and towed to Dalian shipyard in northeast China. After being completely rebuilt and undergoing sea trials, the ship was commissioned into the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) as Liaoning with the class name Type 001 on September 25, 2012. In November 2016, the political commissar of Liaoning, Senior Captain Li Dongyou, stated that Liaoning was combat ready.[5]



Often referred to as an aircraft carrier, the vessel was officially classified by her Soviet builders as "тяжёлый авианесущий крейсер" tyazholiy avianesushchiy kreyser (TAKR or TAVKR) "heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser." The Soviet Union argued that the ships were not aircraft carriers under the Montreux Convention and not subject to the 15,000 ton limit imposed on aircraft carriers traveling through the Bosphorus.[6][7] No signatory to the Montreux Convention objected to their designation as aircraft cruisers, and Turkey allowed the Kuznetsov class to transit the Straits.[8]

The Chinese Navy considers the ship to be an aircraft carrier [9] and unlike the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which carries surface-attack cruise missiles usually found on cruisers, Liaoning is equipped only with air defense weapons and must use its aircraft for surface attack.


The ship was laid down as Riga at Shipyard 444 (now Mykolaiv South) in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on December 6, 1985.[10][11] Design work was undertaken by the Nevskoye Planning and Design Bureau.[12] Launched on December 4, 1988, the carrier was renamed Varyag in late 1990, after the famous cruiser.

Construction ceased by 1992, with the ship structurally complete but without electronics. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, ownership was transferred to Ukraine; the ship was laid up, unmaintained. Ukraine immediately began searching for possible customers, and made overtures to China, which sent a high-level expert delegation in 1992. Although the delegation made a positive report on the condition of the ship, recommending a purchase, the Beijing leadership declined because of the international diplomatic situation at the time. Nevertheless, the People's Liberation Army Navy did not lose interest, and four years later took an independent initiative for a commercial purchase.[13]

In April 1998, Ukrainian Trade Minister Roman Shpek announced the winning bid of US$20 million from Chong Lot Travel Agency, a Hong Kong-based company, which proposed to tow Varyag out of the Black Sea, through the Suez Canal and around southern Asia to Macau, where the ship would be moored and converted into a floating hotel and casino, similar to Kiev in Tianjin and Minsk at Minsk World in Shenzhen.[11] Before the auction was closed, officials in Macau had warned Chong Lot that it would not be permitted to berth Varyag in the harbor. Chong Lot is owned by Chin Luck Holdings Company of Hong Kong. The sale of the carrier was successfully closed in 1998.[14]

In January 2015, further details of the transaction emerged from an interview with Xu Zengping by the South China Morning Post.[13] Xu reported that he was commissioned by the PLAN to purchase the vessel on its behalf, with the floating hotel and casino as a cover story to avoid offending the U.S. and to placate Ukrainian concerns about potential military use. He was warned that there was significant risk from the lack of both a navy budget and support of Beijing for the purchase. Nevertheless, in 1998 Xu was so impressed when he boarded the ship in Mykolaiv, that he resolved to purchase it using his personal funds despite the risks. The previous year, Xu had already spent HK$6 million creating a Macau shell company, Agencia Turistica e Diversoes Chong Lot, having borrowed HK$230 million from a Hong Kong business friend. He described a harrowing negotiation in Kiev, lubricated by bribery and liquor, which helped to arrange victory at the auction. As a precaution, the next day he shipped the 40 tonnes of blueprints for the carrier overland to China in eight trucks. There also was a charge of US$10 million for late payment due to difficulties raising the funds during the Asian financial crisis.

Transfer to China[edit]

The passage from Ukraine to China was even more problematic than the purchase. In mid-2000, the Dutch International Transport Contractors tugboat Suhaili with a Filipino crew was hired to take Varyag under tow. Chong Lot could not get permission from Turkey to transit the dangerous Bosphorus strait; under the Montreux Treaty of 1936 Turkey is obligated to permit free passage, but has certain sovereignty and refusal rights. The hulk spent 16 months under tow circling in the Black Sea while high-level PRC officials negotiated on Chong Lot's behalf, offering Chinese tourism as an incentive to permit the ship's passage.[15][16] In late 2001, Turkey relented from its position that the vessel posed too great a danger to maritime traffic of the Bosphorus, allowing the transit.[17] On November 2, Varyag, escorted by 27 other vessels, completed its six-hour passage through the Dardanelles without incident, making for Çanakkale at 5.8 knots (10.7 km/h; 6.7 mph).[18]

On November 4, Varyag was caught in a force 10 gale and broke adrift while passing the Greek island of Skyros. Sea rescue workers tried to re-secure the hulk as it drifted toward the island of Euboea.[19][20] A seven-member crew remained on board as six tugboats tried to re-establish their tow. After many failed attempts to reattach the lines, a Greek coast guard helicopter landed on Varyag and picked up the seven crew members.[21] One tug managed to make a line fast to the ship that day, but high winds severely hampered efforts to secure the ship. On November 6, a sailor from the tug Haliva Champion, died after a fall while attempting to reattach the tow lines; the hulk was taken back under tow on the same day.[22][23]

The Suez Canal does not permit passage of "dead" ships – those without an on-board power source – so the hulk was towed through the Strait of Gibraltar, around the Cape of Good Hope, and through the Straits of Malacca at an average speed of 6 knots (11 km/h) across the 15,200-nautical-mile (28,200 km) journey, calling for supplies at Piraeus, Greece; Las Palmas, Canary Islands; Maputo, Mozambique; and Singapore en route. It entered Chinese waters on February 20, 2002, and arrived March 3 at Dalian Shipyard in northeast China. The costs included $25 million to the Ukrainian government for the hull, nearly $500,000 in transit fees and $5 million for the towing.[citation needed] While public statements claimed Varyag was to become a casino, in February 2002 Chong Lot was not awarded casino licenses by Macau.

Xu Zengping, the impresario for the whole process from 1996 to 1999, estimated in 2015 the total cost out of his own pocket to be at least US$120 million. He insisted that he has received no reimbursement at all from China, and has spent the last 18 years repaying his debts, in part by selling properties including his palatial home. A source familiar with the acquisition offered the explanation that many of the naval officials initiating the mission had either died or were in jail.[24]

Contrary to information that had been disseminated by Beijing, Xu reported that all four original engines of the propulsion system remained in place preserved in grease seals at the time of purchase and removal to China.[25] A refit restored them to working order in 2011.

Modernization and refit[edit]

In 2008, Robert Karniol, the Asia editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, said: "The Chinese haven't seen this type of carrier before and it could be very useful to them. They are trying to vacuum up as much know-how as they can".[26] Liu Huaqing, a senior admiral of the PLAN and proponent of naval modernization, has spoken of the 21st century as the "century of the sea" and called for naval modernization over several decades.[27]

Ex-Varyag undergoing refit at Dalian in 2011

Varyag was moved in June 2005 to a dry dock at Dalian (38°56′06″N 121°36′51″E / 38.935°N 121.6141°E / 38.935; 121.6141 (Varyag)). Her hull was sandblasted, scaffolding erected, and the ship's island was painted in a red marine primer to treat metal corrosion. On October 24, 2006, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that Russia planned to sell up to 50 Sukhoi Su-33 fighters to China through Rosoboronexport, in a $2.5 billion deal. In March 2009 Moskovskij Komsomolets reported that negotiations had collapsed over Russian fears that China might undercut Russian exports by producing cheaper versions of the Su-33 equipped with Chinese systems, similar to the development of the Shenyang J-11 from the Sukhoi Su-27.[28]

In 2007, Jane's Fighting Ships stated that the ship would possibly be named Shi Lang and assigned pennant number 83, but that these were unconfirmed.[29] Jane's Navy International noted in October 2007 that "refurbishment work and fitting out is continuing and the vessel is expected to begin initial sea trials in 2008".[30] At the end of 2008, the Asahi Shimbun reported that the carrier was "nearing completion".[31] On April 27, 2009, the carrier was reported to have been moved into another dry dock, "to install engines and other heavy equipment".[32] Sensors that have been observed are Type 348 active electronically scanned array (AESA) Radar (four arrays) and Sea Eagle radar. Weapons observed have been the Type 1030 CIWS, and the FL-3000N missile system. It has also been observed that the old anti-ship missile tubes would not be used, freeing up internal space for hangar or storage use. Russia has similar plans to modernize her sister ship Admiral Kuznetsov.[33]

In 2009, the PLAN constructed a full scale logistics, training deck and island mock-up at the Wuhan Naval Research facilities near Huangjia Lake, Wuhan.[34][35] On June 8, 2011, the Chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army, Gen. Chen Bingde made the first acknowledgement of the ship's existence from China's armed forces, stating that the carrier "is being built, but has not been completed." The ship would be used for training and as a model for a future indigenously-built ship. Qi Jianguo, assistant to the chief of the PLA's general staff said "All of the great nations in the world own aircraft carriers — they are symbols of a great power."[36] On July 27, 2011, the Chinese Defense Ministry announced it was refitting the vessel for "scientific research, experiment and training".[37]

Sea trials and handover[edit]

On 10 August 2011, the ex-Varyag began sea trials. An RSIS analyst noted that China still had a long way to go to make her operational, but was determined to do so.[38] On 15 August 2011, she docked in Dalian, completing her first four-day sea trial.[39] On 29 November 2011 the carrier left port for her second set of trials.[40][41] In December 2011 the ship was photographed by satellite while undertaking sea trials.[42] The carrier completed her eighth sea trial between 7 June and 21 June 2012 and returned to Dalian. In July 2012, the ship set out for the longest sea trials thus far, 25 days, and there was speculation that this would have involved testing the launching and recovery of aircraft.[43]

The carrier completed sea trials in early August 2012 and loaded Shenyang J-15 aircraft and KJ-88, YJ-83K, and YJ-91 missiles in preparation for weapons systems trials.[44] Reuters analysis suggested the role of the ship would be mostly training and evaluation ahead of the building of domestic carriers, with only a limited operational role. Flight control software, avionics, weapons and radars were yet undeveloped. Reuters reported PLA officers stating the carrier was far from operational with extensive further trials and exercises required.[45]

On 23 September 2012, the aircraft carrier was handed over to the PLAN, and was commissioned on 25 September 2012.[46] At the commissioning ceremony, the carrier was officially named Liaoning, in honour of the province in which she was retrofitted.[27][47] On 26 December 2012, the People's Daily reported that it would take four to five years for the Liaoning to reach full capacity, mainly due to training and coordination requirements related to this being the first operational aircraft carrier in the PLAN's possession.[48] As it is currently a training ship, Liaoning is not assigned to any of China's operational fleets.[49]

On 7 April 2014, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel became the first foreign visitor to take a tour of Liaoning during a wider trip to China to discuss cybersecurity and address China's military buildup in the East China Sea. Secretary Hagel had asked to see the ship in early 2014, and the request was accepted in advance of his arrival. Hagel and a number of his staff toured the vessel at Yuchi Naval Base, observing the medical facilities, living quarters, flight deck, bridge, and flight control station. They received a briefing about the carrier and also had refreshments with junior officers. The U.S. Department of Defense said that Secretary Hagel was pleased to visit Liaoning and was impressed by the professionalism of the officers and crew.[50]

During sea trials, Liaoning experienced a steam burst in the engine compartment which forced crew to evacuate some parts of the ship, and the ship lost power. The problem was ultimately resolved and power was restored, although the time duration of the problem has not been released by military officials.[51]

According to geopolitical analysts, China could use Liaoning and its future carriers to intimidate other smaller countries that have territorial claims in the South China Sea, as well as extending air control further south of the disputed region.[52] In December 2016 the ship exercised in the Western Pacific, including passing through the Miyako Strait between the Japanese islands of Miyako-jima and Okinawa.[53][54]

Aircraft handling[edit]

On 4 November 2012, the People's Liberation Army's website (Chinese: 中国军网) reported that Shenyang J-15s had performed carrier touch-and-go training.[55][56] On 25 November 2012, China announced that J-15s had made five successful arrested landings on Liaoning.[57][58][59][60] In June 2013, a second round of flight tests began on board Liaoning, with personnel from the fleet air arm of the Brazilian Navy providing carrier training support to the PLAN.[61][62]

In August 2014, based on an article from Chinese state media, western news outlets reported that two pilots had been killed testing jets slated to operate from Liaoning.[63][64] Chinese military officials stated such reports were misleading, and clarified that deaths were in fact unrelated with tests on the carrier.[65][66] The original Chinese article from Xinhua also did not link the deaths with the J-15 nor mention any loss of such aircraft.[67]

In August 2014, the Chinese-language Shanghai Morning Post listed that Liaoning would carry 36 aircraft: 24 Shenyang J-15 fighters, six Changhe Z-18F anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters, four Changhe Z-18J airborne early warning helicopters and two Harbin Z-9C rescue helicopters. The Chinese carrier aircraft inventory is similar to a balanced combat and support aircraft approach intended for Soviet aircraft carriers, which supported nuclear submarines, large surface combatants, and land-based strike bombers performing anti-access roles. The air wing lacks long-range radar and anti-submarine fixed-wing aircraft, needing support from shore-based aircraft such as Tupolev Tu-154 ASW and Shaanxi Y-8 AWACS aircraft. The U.S. Department of Defense noted that J-15s will have below normal range and armament when operating from the carrier, due to limits imposed by the ski-jump takeoff system.[68] The lack of a carrier onboard delivery aircraft like the United States Navy (USN) Grumman C-2 Greyhound also limits logistics capabilities. Liaoning would need extensive land-based support to oppose a USN carrier strike group; however, it would be potent against the Vietnam People's Navy and the Philippine Navy. Deficiencies will likely be corrected with future aircraft carriers, which are expected to be larger with conventional takeoff decks and catapult launching for heavier fighters, plus fixed-wing radar and anti-submarine patrol aircraft.[69]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]