China's First Aircraft Carrier Is Finally Shipshape

During the Korean War, China's greatest military resource was its vastly overwhelming personnel numbers. However, over the past three decades, the People's Liberation Army has undergone a sea change in military strategy, evolving from a massive army with outdated Soviet weapons to a modernized fighting force, replete with aircraft, submarines, and warships—but no aircraft carriers. That is, until the Liaoning was commissioned.

The Liaoning is a 54,000 ton displacement Admiral Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier, formerly the Riga (and also Varyag) of the Soviet Navy, that the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) purchased from the Ukraine in 1998 for a paltry $25 million and has been refurbishing for the past decade.

The ship was purchased under the auspices of being converted into a floating casino off the coast of Macau by a Chinese holding company, the Chong Lot Travel Agency, and was towed to the Dalian shipyard for retrofitting. However after "failing" to obtain the necessary casino license from Macau, the PLAN took control of the vessel and instead converted it in the first aircraft carrier in the nation's naval history. Pretty convenient.

The Liaoning measures 1000 feet long with 246 foot beam and 34 foot draft. While still sailing under the Ukrainian flag, the carrier was powered by a set of 200,000 hp steam turbines, but is now powered by a pair of 50,000 hp turbines, nine 2,011 hp turbo-generators, and six 2,011 hp diesel generators. The carrier has a top speed of roughly 32 knots and an estimated range of 3,850 nautical miles. The Liaoning carries enough supplies to keep its crew of 1,960 comfortably at sea for up to 45 days.

Despite widespread anticipation that the carrier would become a PLAN flagship, the vessel is far from fully operational. In fact, the Liaoning will likely never be attached to an operational group and instead be used as a testbed for "scientific research, experiment and training" as well as for developing the future indigenously-built aircraft carriers. "All of the great nations in the world own aircraft carriers," said Qi Jianguo, assistant to the chief of the PLA's general staff. "They are symbols of a great power."

As of now, the Liaoning is reportedly outfitted with 3 Aegis CIWS systems, a trio of HQ-10 Cell Missile systems, and a pair of ASW 12-tube rocket launchers, as well as Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) and Sea Eagle radar systems. However the vessel still lacks the most important component for readiness—a competent complement of crew. The People's Daily estimates that fully training the necessary crew and developing the necessary logistical and support capabilities will take another four to five years.

Until then, China will continue to operate the Liaoning out of its homeport of Qingdao in Shandong Province, performing scientific and training exercises and generally enjoying its new high seas status symbol. [Russia's Navy - Wikipedia - Jeff Head - Reuters - Defense Talk - Image: AP Images]