By MICHAEL WINES
August 10, 2011
BEIJING — China’s first aircraft carrier began sea trials on Wednesday, the state-run Xinhua news service reported, a highly symbolic step in what is certain to be an effort of many years to create a carrier presence in the Pacific waters off its coast.
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Lian Min/European Pressphoto Agency
The Chinese carrier, in April, under construction in Dalian.
The carrier, once known as the Varyag, left Dalian, its northeast China port, for what analysts said would be a test of its rudder, propulsion system and other basics. Xinhua’s two-sentence report stated only that the carrier would make a short voyage before returning to Dalian for further tests.
The Chinese Defense Ministry said last month that the carrier would be used largely for scientific research and training. Foreign military analysts say it could be a decade or more before the Chinese can deploy and operate a true fleet of carriers, the most costly and complex weapons systems in any nation’s arsenal.
The launching is nonetheless a highly significant moment for China’s fast-growing military.
“It’s a milestone for them, and not only the navy. It’s a national date, too,” said Andrei Chang, the Hong Kong-based editor of Kanwa Asian Defense Review. “But it’s the first step in a long march.”
In publicly acknowledging the carrier’s existence last month, a Defense Ministry spokesman said that the vessel did not alter China’s stated policy that its armed forces were wholly defensive in nature, and that the ship had “nothing to do” with China’s continuing disputes with neighboring nations over its claim to most of the South China Sea.
A fleet of carriers would nevertheless bolster the navy’s already overwhelming military advantage over China’s smaller neighbors.
China has long been rumored to have more aircraft carriers under construction in a Shanghai shipyard, but most Chinese military matters are tightly held secrets, and that report has yet to be confirmed. Military experts say that a naval force needs a minimum of three carriers to maintain a constant sea presence because at any one time a single vessel is likely to be docked for repairs or modernization.
The ship that began sea trials on Wednesday is in fact a retrofitted version of a Soviet vessel, the Riga, that was once supposed to become the most advanced carrier in the Soviet fleet. But construction at a Ukrainian shipyard was halted when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Ukraine was unable to finish construction and later stripped the ship, which had been renamed the Varyag, of its weapons and engines and put it up for sale.
A Chinese company bought the Varyag for $20 million in 1998, ostensibly to turn into a floating casino. But in 2004, workers in Dalian sandblasted the hull and repainted it in Chinese colors, then began an update. As retrofitting wound up this spring, the Chinese unveiled a carrier-based jet, the J-15 Flying Shark, an updated clone of a Soviet-era Sukhoi-33 fighter.
Many experts say the carrier is unlikely to deploy a fighter force until after 2015 because landing a jet on an aircraft carrier is a highly dangerous maneuver that requires years of training. In a blog entry posted on Tuesday, an expert on the Chinese military, Andrew S. Erickson, cited Pentagon figures showing that the United States Navy and Marines together lost nearly 12,000 aircraft and 8,500 crew members from 1949 to 1988, including 776 planes and 535 crew members in 1954 alone.
Not all those aircraft were based on carriers, but the rate of accidents for carrier-based planes was higher than that of the entire seagoing force.
“Even a less-aggressive carrier operator than the U.S. is almost certain to suffer substantial unexpected losses of aircraft and crew as it works to build its operational knowledge and human capital,” Mr. Erickson wrote. “Clearly the first Chinese carrier aviators and ship captains face steep challenges ahead.”