China may be ready to launch its first aircraft carrier next year, Chinese military and political sources said on Thursday, a year ahead of US military analysts’ expectations.
Analysts expect China to use its first operational aircraft carrier to ensure the security of its oil supply route through the Indian Ocean and near the disputed Spratly Islands, but full capability is still some years away.
“The period around July 1 next year to celebrate the [Chinese Communist] Party’s birthday is one window [for the launch],” one source with ties to the leadership said, requesting anonymity because the carrier program is one of China’s most closely guarded secrets.
The possible launch next year of the former Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag for training and testing technology will be one step toward building an operating aircraft carrier group, analysts said.
The US Office of Naval Intelligence estimates the Varyag will be launched as a training platform by 2012 and that China will have an operational domestically built carrier after 2015.
Andrew Erickson and Andrew Wilson of the US Naval College wrote that it was “conceivable that carrier-relevant research, development and even production ... could proceed with a rapidity that might surprise Western analysts.”
China needs hardware, software and pilot training.
“The acquisition of a carrier doesn’t equate to the acquisition of a capability — the ability to use it effectively — the latter involving a process that can take decades,” said Robert Karniol, a veteran defense analyst based in Canada.
The 300m Varyag is undergoing a refit at a state-run shipyard in Dalian, sources said.
A Chinese firm bought the then-engineless Varyag from Ukraine in 1998 for US$20 million, planning to convert it to a floating casino in Macau, but the Chinese military then bought the vessel.
Chinese air force pilots have yet to master takeoffs and landings from carriers. They have been undergoing training, but have far fewer flying hours than their US peers.
“They must realize that their learning curve will be costly in terms of blood and treasure,” Erickson and Wilson wrote.
The US and China’s neighbors are nervous about how China could use its growing navy and speeding up preparations for an aircraft carrier group could add to those jitters.
“Just the prospect of China building aircraft carriers has already made neighbors uneasy,” former Taiwanese deputy minister of National Defense Lin Chong-pin (林中斌) said in an interview.