The Long And Strange Tale Of China's First Aircraft Carrier

It was in November 2016 that China eventually confirmed that the Liaoning was combat ready - but that doesn't tell half of her long and...

It was in November 2016 that China eventually confirmed that the Liaoning was combat ready - but that doesn't tell half of her long and unusual story.

Previously described by Chinese media as a surface platform for training and tests, state media announced the Liaoning now had "a real combat capacity".

It quoted a government official, Li Dongyou, as saying she is "constantly prepared for war":

The Liaoning: A History


Ukraine shipyard

The first strange thing about the carrier? She wasn't even built by China.

Liaoning was in fact born as 'Riga'. Built for the Soviet Navy as the sister ship to the Admiral Kuznetsov (now Russia's only carrier), she has similar capabilities and characteristics - but a much more complicated history. 

Built in a shipyard (similar to the one shown above) in what is now Ukraine and launched in 1988, she was renamed 'Varyag' two years later.

Here, though, things started getting complicated. Ownership was transferred to Ukraine with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and construction had ceased on the carrier by 1992, with work 68% complete.

The ship was structurally complete but without electronics, an engine or rudder.

She was left idle and unmaintained as Ukraine began searching for potential buyers, making overtures to China, but it wasn't until 1998 that a winning bid was announced. 

Finding A Buyer


Liaoning Chinese aircraft carrier as 'Varyag'

Yet here the plot thickens even further. The buyer wasn't the Chinese Navy, but the Chong Lot Travel Agency, a Hong Kong-based company.

It bid US $20 million to tow Varyag out of the Black Sea, through the Suez Canal and around southern Asia to the autonomous Chinese territory of Macau, where she was to be moored and converted into a floating hotel and casino.

The man at the helm of the deal, Xu Zengping, later told the South China Morning Post that he had been secretly commissioned by the Chinese Navy to buy the carrier, with the floating hotel and casino a cover story to avoid offending the US and to assuage Ukrainian concerns about potential military use.

He'd been warned that the purchase was a risky one, due to the lack of Navy funds and support from Beijing for the deal. Officials in Macau, meanwhile, had warned Chong Lot that it would not be allowed to berth Varyag in its harbour before the auction was closed.

But after being bowled over by a visit to the ship in Ukraine, he decided to gamble his own funds on the deal, and after a negotiation in Kiev, lubricated by bribery and liquor, was successful at auction.

It would ultimately cost him at least $120 million, with shell companies having to be created, and transit fees, tow bills and fines having to be paid.

He says no reimbursement of any kind was received from China, and that he's spent almost two decades repaying his debts, in part by selling properties including his palatial home.

It's been suggested that part of the reason is that many of the naval officials who ordered the mission had either died or were in jail.

The Woes Continue


Liaoning Chinese aircraft carrier as Varyag in Istanbul

Next, it was time to tow her home.

The only problem: Chong Lot couldn't get permission from Turkey for the half-built carrier to transit the dangerous Bosphorus strait, saying the vessel posed too great a danger to maritime traffic.

So the hulk spent 16 months circling in the Black Sea under tow while high-level Chinese officials negotiated, offering Chinese tourism as an incentive to allow the ship passage.

In the end, Turkey relented in late 2001. Varyag passed through the Dardanelles (above) without incident on November 2, escorted by 27 other vessels.

Just two days later, however, she was caught in a force 10 gale and broke adrift while passing the Greek island of Skyros, and began drifting toward the island of Euboea.

The hulk was taken back under tow on November 6, although this came after a sailor had died, having fallen while attempting to reattach the tow lines.

Work Finally Underway


Liaoning Chinese aircraft carrier during refit

Refurbishment work and fitting out began in 2005 after a move to dry dock in the city of Dalian (above).

Engines and 'other heavy equipment' were installed from 2009, with sea trials starting two years later.

Smaller-scale hiccups continued, with Liaoning at one point experiencing a steam burst in her engine compartment which made the ship lose power, and forced crew to evacuate some parts of her.

But trials were finally over in 2012, after which the carrier was commissioned and officially named Liaoning (pictured top), in honour of the province in which she was retrofitted - 24 years after her initial launch.

State media reported that it would be another four to five years before the Liaoning reached full capacity, however, because of training and coordination necessary due to her being the first operational Chinese aircraft carrier.

Liaoning Today


J-15 prototype on Liaoning Chinese aircraft carrier

Nowadays, Liaoning is finally able to do what she was intended for. She can carry a total of 36 aircraft, including 24 J-15 fighter jets (above) and a number of military helicopters.

The main difference between her and her Russian sister ship is that unlike the Kuznetsov, which carries surface-attack cruise missiles, Liaoning is equipped only with air defence weapons and must use its aircraft for surface attack.

Looking forward, some geopolitical analysts have feared that China could use Liaoning and newer carriers like the Type 001A to intimidate smaller countries that have territorial claims in the South China Sea, as well as extending air control further south of the disputed area.

With thanks to Simon Yang for photography.

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