LIAONING (CV-16) gallery

In May 2015, China published the White Paper on its military strategy, which complemented another strategic report titled “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) in which its commercial and geostrategic expansion plans for the future were set out. These plans showed a new concept called “distant maritime protection” that basically consisted of the installation of numerous naval bases in different countries as well as the implementation of a powerful surface combat fleet, based on different naval air combat groups capable of projecting a force anywhere on the globe. Of course, this capability could only be achieved by incorporating aircraft carriers, so it has been planned to build 6 naval air combat groups, each led by an aircraft carrier, in a period of no more than 10 or 12 years, which would mean having them all operational around 2028. At that time, the Chinese Navy had one in service, the Type 001 Liaoning, although it was still in the process of achieving full operational capability.
The history of the Liaoning aircraft carrier has been quite long and complex, full of challenges for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy). This ship began its journey in 1985, in the Nikolayev South Shipyard in Ukraine, where it began to be built, as the second ship of the Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrying cruiser for the Soviet Navy with the name “Riga“, which was changed to “Varyag” (on the image) in 1990. In 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, its construction was stopped when it was 68% complete, and the ship was put up for sale by Ukraine. Initially, the ship was supposed to be simply the hull and the superstructure, without propulsion, electronic equipment and weapons, and logically, she could not navigate by her own means, she was what in naval terminology is designated as a “hulk”, although perhaps this was not entirely true, as discussed below.
The Varyag hulk was in the shipyard waiting to be acquired until 1998, when the “Agencia Turistica E Diversões Chong Lot Limitada”, a Chinese company based in Macau, bought it at public auction for a price of US$20 million. The idea of ​​this company was to transform the aircraft carrier Varyag into a luxurious floating hotel-casino, although this operation raised suspicions from the beginning among Western analysts. Apparently the Chong Lot company did not have contact information or a registered address and was also directed by former officers of the Chinese Navy. Finally, this firm transferred the ship to the PLA Navy for refitting.
In January 2015, the suspicions of Western analysts were confirmed after the statements of a Hong Kong businessman to the South China Morning Post newspaper. Mr. Xu Zengping, a former military man, told how he was commissioned by the PLA Navy to acquire the aircraft carrier Varyag under the cover story that it was going to be converted into a floating hotel-casino. According to this man, he formed the Chong Lot company with borrowed money the year before the purchase and decided to go to Kyiv, Ukraine, to ” facilitate” his success in the auction…, based on bribes and parties. He also told the newspaper that he sent all the blueprints of the aircraft carrier to China by road aboard 8 trucks. Of course, this surprising story could serve as a script for a spy movie.
Once acquired, the aircraft carrier had to be towed to a Chinese shipyard, a task that proved extremely long and problematic. The trip began in June 2000, but when they reached the Bosphorus Strait, the Turkish authorities denied them passage due to fear that the ship could capsize due to strong winds and the strait would become blocked. Negotiations then began that bore fruit in August 2001, when Turkey allowed the ship to pass through. On November 1, 2001, the Varyag passed the strait without incident and on November 2 she did the same through the Dardanelles, also without problems. However, on November 4, the ship was set adrift after enduring a gale while crossing the Greek island of Skyros.
The trip continued, and as the Suez Canal does not allow the passage of towed ships (dead ships), the aircraft carrier had to make a detour of 15,200 nautical miles (28,200 km) passing through the Strait of Gibraltar, the Cape of Good Hope and the Straits of Malacca. Finally, the Varyag entered Chinese waters on February 20, 2002, arriving at its destination, the Dalian naval shipyard, on March 3, after a 21-month voyage. In total, moving it from Ukraine cost about US$6 million, although the total figures for the acquisition did not add up at all. According to Mr. Xu Zengping (buyer of the ship) in 2015, the real cost of the Varyag aircraft carrier was at least US$120 million, an amount that, according to him, was never reimbursed by the Chinese Government and which Mr. Xu Zengping has taken 18 years to repay their creditors.
In June 2005, the aircraft carrier Varyag was moved to dry dock to begin arduous restoration and modernization work. The design and adaptation work to Chinese needs was very long and the condition of the ship was so bad that it practically had to be completely rebuilt. The hull was completely sandblasted and the island received an anti-corrosion treatment and was painted with red marine primer. In April 2009, the ship was moved to another dry dock where different heavy equipment and also the engines were going to be installed, although the latter seem to have already been installed from Ukraine. According to Mr. Xu Zengping (buyer of the ship) in 2015, the ship was sold with the 4 original engines installed, but these were disconnected and preserved in grease seals. It seems that they were finally restored and commissioned in 2011.
At the end of 2009 a new radar mast was installed with a Type 382 “Sea Eagle” radar and a Type 348 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar (four arrays). At the same time that the construction of the ship was progressing, a full-scale model of the deck and island of the aircraft carrier was built at the Wuhan Naval Research facilities. This model was used to learn logistical and operational training tasks on aircraft carriers. In 2010, the installation of different systems began, and in March 2011 the ship’s island was almost completed. In July 2011, the Minister of Defense declared that the aircraft carrier was now ready to carry out training and experimental missions.
On August 10, 2011, the aircraft carrier began its first sea trials, which lasted 5 days. Subsequently, until August 2012, the ship carried out a total of 9 sea trials, the longest being those carried out in July 2012, which lasted 25 days and involved landings and takeoffs of aircraft and helicopters. It seems that during some tests there was an incident with a boiler that forced some crew members to evacuate from certain areas of the ship, although there is no specific data. Tests were also carried out with the onboard weapons without apparent problems.
The ship was delivered to the PLA Navy on September 23, 2012, and was formally commissioned on September 25. The aircraft carrier was christened Liaoning on the day of her enlistment, and the name was given in honor of the province where she was rebuilt. Subsequently, the Liaoning served as a training ship and she did not reach her full operational capacity until 2018. In fact, during these 6 years she was not included in any of the operational fleets. However, during this training period, the Liaoning participated in different naval exercises in the Western Pacific and the South China Sea.
The Type 001 Liaoning (CV-16) aircraft carrier cannot be considered a ship of Chinese design because it is actually a rebuilt Soviet ship, although all the work, equipment and weapons are of Chinese origin. The Varyag carrier belonged to the Soviet Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier, which were STOBAR (short take-off, barrier-arrested recovery) type aircraft carriers that did not have catapults to launch aircraft. On the other hand, the ship has a 12 degrees bow “ski-jump” for launching fixed-wing aircraft and has 4 arrestor wires that allow the landing of high-performance fighter-bomber jets. The use of these two systems allows the use of conventional aircraft, generally more powerful than the V/STOL type, but the lack of catapults limits the maximum takeoff weight of the embarked aircraft.
Liaoning carrier has a conventional propulsion system made up of 8 oil-fired steam boilers and 4 turbines that theoretically give it a maximum speed of 32 knots, although according to some experts, the unreliability of this equipment would limit the speed to about 20 knots. The Liaoning has two elevators on the starboard side, fore and aft of the island. The hangar is larger than that of the original Russian ships, as space has been gained by removing the cruise missile silos that were installed on the Varyag ship.
In 2014 it was published that the embarked wing of the Liaoning (CV-16) would be composed of 24 Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark multirole fighters, a naval variant of the Shenyang J-11 fighter-bomber equivalent to the Russian Sukhoi Su-33, 4 Changhe Z-18J airborne early warning (AEW) helicopters, 6 Changhe Z-18F anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters and 2 Harbin Z-9C rescue helicopters, practically the same as the current one. The ship carries about 2,500 tons of aviation fuel that allows it to carry out up to 1,000 aircraft and helicopter sorties. Although the capacity of this aircraft carrier cannot be compared even remotely with the US Navy’s aircraft carriers, the Liaoning allows the Chinese Navy to control an extensive maritime area and project a powerful force over areas of interest far from its territorial waters.
In addition to the aircraft and helicopters, the Liaoning has an air defense system consisting of three 18 cells HHQ-10 (FL-3000N) short range surface-to-air missile launchers, two forward and one aft. It also has three 30mm eleven barreled Type 1130 CIWS guns for anti-missile defense, one forward and two aft, and two 240mm 12-tube Type 75 ASW rocket launchers, one on each side aft. Finally, it also has 4 Type 726-4 chaff launchers with 24 tubes each, two aft and two starboard.
The aircraft carrier Liaoning has been assigned to China’s Northern Theater and has its home port at Yuchi Naval Base, Qingdao. This ship is believed to lead a surface combat group similar to those of the US Navy, made up of at least 2 destroyers, 4 frigates, 1 supply ship and some nuclear attack submarines. In the summer of 2018, the ship received its first refit, which lasted 5 months, in which one of the radars and the air traffic control post located at the back of the island were replaced. Modifications to the superstructure and a complete reconditioning of the flight deck were also observed.
Since its arrival, the Liaoning has carried out constant naval exercises that in some cases are considered “threatening” by neighboring countries. In late 2019, a second aircraft carrier, the Shandong (CV-17) joined the Liaoning, adding more tension to the area, and more recently, in mid-2022, the aircraft carrier Fujian (CV-18) has joined the Chinese fleet. Although these aircraft carriers have the disadvantage of not having a nuclear propulsion system, there is no doubt that these ships have greatly increased the attack capacity of the Chinese Navy, which is alarming all countries in the area and has given rise to South Korea and Japan to transform their helicopter carriers so that they can operate with F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) high-performance aircraft.

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