China considers next-generation Su-33s for aircraft carrier programme
By Reuben F Johnson
28 October 2008
China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is close to reaching a decision on the procurement of aircraft for its aircraft carrier programme, Russian industry sources have told Jane's.
Negotiations between the PLAN and the Komsomolsk-na-Amure Aviation Production Association (KnAAPO) in Russia have been held intermittently for several years, with the Chinese military said to be unsure whether to purchase a version of the Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-capable fighter or develop its own carrier aircraft based on the Chengdu J-10.
Russian sources have now told Jane's that under the current proposal the Russian in-service Su-33 would be put back into production and the PLAN would acquire 14 of this type to be used for the training phase of the programme.
This option will see a carrier aircraft delivered to the PLAN in the shortest possible timeframe.
The development of a new-configuration aircraft to be used in actual carrier operations would take place in parallel with this training programme.
"The next step will be to modernise the Su-33, which was first designed in the late 1980s, with a new set of state-of-the-art onboard systems," a KnAAPO representative told Jane's on the eve of the biennial Air Show China in late October. "What this new aeroplane is most likely to be is a combination Su-33 airframe with a radar, avionics and cockpit instrumentation that is a 'developed' configuration based on the Su-30MK2, and this will be the PLAN's operational version."
239 of 613 words
© 2008 Jane's Information Group
Status of Aircraft Carrier Developments
China first began to discuss developing an indigenous aircraft carrier in the late 1970s. In 1985, China purchased the Australian carrier the HMAS Melbourne. Although the hull was scrapped, Chinese technicians studied the ship and built a replica of its fl ight deck for pilot training. With the demise of the Soviet Union, China purchased two former Soviet carriers – the Minsk in 1998 and the Kiev in 2000. Neither carrier was made operational; instead they were used as fl oating military theme parks. Nevertheless, both provided design information to PLA Navy engineers.
Attracting the most attention is China’s 1998 purchase of the ex-Varyag, a Kuznetsov-class Soviet carrier only 70 percent complete at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Recent deck refurbishment, electrical work, fresh hull paint with PLA Navy markings, and expressed interest in Russia’s Su-33 fighter have re-kindled debate on a Chinese carrier fl eet. Though the PLA’s ultimate intentions remain unclear, a number of possibilities exist for the Varyag:
- First operational aircraft carrier. Photos showing maintenance and repair on the hull and deck of the ship suggest this could be an option.
- A training platform. Given the difficulty and expense in overhauling the ex-Varyag, it is possible, but doubtful, the PLA would invest the resources to develop it only for training purposes.
- A transitional platform. The Varyag could act as a stand-in until an indigenous carrier can be completed, allowing the PLA Navy to use it as a model and gain experience.
- Theme park. The Varyag could be exploited for its design and then scrapped for parts, turned into a floating theme park, or used for its originally stated purchase purpose – a casino.
Regardless of Beijing’s final objective for the ex-Varyag, it is facilitating PLA Navy engineers’ comprehensive study of the platform’s structural design, which could eventually assist China in creating its own carrier program. Some analysts in and out government predict that China could have an operational carrier by the end of the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), but others assess the earliest China could deploy an operational aircraft carrier is 2020 or beyond.
Military Power of the PRC 2007
In October 2006, Lieutenant General Wang Zhiyuan, vice chairman of the Science and Technology Commission of the PLA’s General Armament Department stated that the “Chinese army will study how to manufacture aircraft carriers so that we can develop our own . . . . [A]ircraft carriers are indispensable if we want to protect our interests in oceans.”
China first began to discuss developing an indigenous aircraft carrier in the late 1970s. In 1985, China purchased the Australian carrier the HMAS Melbourne. Although the hull was scrapped, Chinese technicians studied the ship and built a replica of its flight deck for pilot training. China purchased two former Soviet carriers – the Minsk in 1998 and the Kiev in 2000. Neither carrier was made operational; instead, they were used as floating military theme parks. Nevertheless, both provided design information to PLA Navy engineers.
In 1998 China purchased the ex-Varyag, a Kuznetsov-class Soviet carrier that was only 70 percent complete at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Recent deck refurbishment, electrical work, fresh hull paint with PLA Navy markings, and expressed interest in Russia’s Su-33 fighter has re-kindled debate about a Chinese carrier fleet. The PLA’s ultimate intentions for the Varyag remain unclear, but a number of possibilities exist: turning it into an operational aircraft carrier, a training or transitional platform, or a floating theme park – its originally-stated purpose.
Regardless of Beijing’s final objective for the ex-Varyag, PLA Navy study of the ship’s structural design could eventually assist China in creating its own carrier program. Lieutenant General Wang stated that, “we cannot establish a real naval force of aircraft carriers within three or five years.” Some analysts in and out of government predict that China could have an operational carrier by the end of the 12th Five- Year Plan (2011-2015); others assess the earliest it could deploy an operational aircraft carrier is 2020 or beyond.
Military Power of the PRC 2008
There does not appear to be evidence that China has begun construction of an aircraft carrier. However, evidence in recent years increasingly suggests China’s leaders may be moving forward with an aircraft carrier program. For example, beginning in early 2006 and with the release of China’s Eleventh Five Year Plan, PRC-owned media reported on statements from high-level government and military officials on China’s intent to build aircraft carriers – including a March 2007 statement from the then-minister of China’s Commission on Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND).
Continued renovations to the former Soviet Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier suggest China may choose to use the platform for training purposes. Moreover, Russian press has reported Chinese interest in acquiring Russian Su-33 carrier-borne fighters. In October 2006 a Russian press report suggested early-stage negotiations were underway for China to purchase up to 50 such aircraft at a cost of $2.5 billion. However, there has been no announcement of a contract for the aircraft.
Analysts in and out of government project that China could not have an operational, domestically-produced carrier before 2015. However, changes in China’s shipbuilding capability and degree of foreign assistance to the program could alter those projections.