Sunday, March 6, 2011

Weekend Warships #2: From City, to Admiral, to King!

This Weekend Warships article will trace the long, strange, convoluted career of the former Soviet Kiev class 'heavy aviation cruiser' Baku.

In the 1970's, the Soviet Union decided to work towards an aircraft carrier capability for its Navy. This gave rise to Project 1153 Orel, which prepared preliminary designs for a ship of 75,000-80,000 tons, powered by a nuclear reactor and capable of carrying 70-odd aircraft, launching them by steam catapults in the same way as US aircraft carriers. Unlike US carriers, it would also have carried a heavy offensive missile armament. However, the design was considered too costly at the time, as was a smaller version of about 60,000 tons carrying 50-odd aircraft. Another factor in the decision was that Soviet shipyards had never built a true aircraft-carrier, nor (at the time) a warship larger than the contemporary Kirov class guided missile cruisers, which displaced about 25,000 tons (and which are still the largest and heaviest surface - i.e. non-aviation - combat ships in service anywhere in the world). To jump from this size to a warship three times larger would be a serious challenge.

Kirov class nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser Pyotr Velikiy,
currently flagship of the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet

Project Orel eventually gave rise to two classes of 'pure' aircraft-carrier. First, beginning construction in 1983, came what is today known as the Admiral Kuznetsov class carriers; two ships [only one of which was completed, in 1991], each of close to 60,000 tons, equipped with a ski-jump ramp on their bows to facilitate take-offs, but no catapults, and arrester gear to stop aircraft landing on deck.

Admiral Kuznetsov in Russian Navy service in 1996 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Admiral Kuznetsov was the first carrier in the Soviet Union capable of operating 'normal' aircraft [i.e. not restricted to vertical take-off and landing].

Next came a US-style large nuclear-powered carrier, the 80,000-ton aircraft-carrier Ulyanovsk, laid down in 1988, with a sister ship also begun soon thereafter.

Proposed design of Soviet aircraft-carrier Ulyanovsk (click image for a larger view)

However, Ulyanovsk was only about 40% complete when the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990-91 led to the cancellation of both ships. Their incomplete hulls were broken up for scrap.

To return to the 1970's, even while Project 1153 Orel was under consideration, the Soviet Navy was faced with a dilemma. It needed to develop its aviation expertise further, so as to be ready for its new aircraft-carriers when they arrived. However, to do this, it needed ships capable of operating fixed-wing aircraft, rather than being restricted to rotary-wing aircraft, as were its two 17,000-ton Moskva class helicopter carriers launched in the 1960's and intended for anti-submarine operations.

Soviet Moskva class helicopter carrier

The Moskva class ships carried 14-18 Kamov Ka-25 anti-submarine helicopters (NATO reporting name 'Hormone'):

Kamov Ka-25 helicopter operating from Moskva in 1970 (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

and sometimes the larger Mil Mi-8 transport helicopter (NATO reporting name 'Hip') and/or the further developed anti-submarine and search-and-rescue version of that helicopter, the Mil Mi-14 (NATO reporting name 'Haze'):

Mil Mi-14 of the Polish Navy

but they proved unable to handle the first generation of vertical take-off and landing aircraft (represented in the Soviet Navy by the Yakovlev Yak-38, NATO reporting name 'Forger').

Yakovlev Yak-38 naval strike aircraft

The Soviet Navy needed to learn from experience how to handle larger aircraft aboard ships, with their space constraints and the hazards caused by a platform affected by wind and waves. The US Navy's expertise in these areas had been developed over decades, at great cost in human life and expensive machinery. It wasn't something that could be studied purely theoretically, in an academic setting - it had to be learned the hard way.

Another factor affecting Soviet considerations was the Montreaux Convention of 1936 governing the passage of ships through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, the straits connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. The Convention had long been interpreted as forbidding the passage of aircraft-carriers (although its wording is not explicit in this regard). To get around this traditional interpretation of the treaty, the Soviet Union designated its Moskva class helicopter carriers as 'aviation cruisers', a type of ship not named in the Convention. Their heavy missile armament helped to reinforce the Soviet contention that they were primarily cruisers, with a secondary aviation capability. This was provided for in Annex II(B)(2) of the Convention, which states:

"The fitting of a landing on or flying off deck on any vessel of war, provided such vessel has not been designed or adapted primarily for the purpose of carrying and operating aircraft at sea, shall not cause any vessel so fitted to be classified in the category of aircraft-carriers."

Turkey, through whose territory the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles run, accepted the Soviet argument, which meant that the Moskva class ships could pass between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea without legal difficulty. It was obviously desirable for the next generation of Soviet aircraft-carrying vessels to retain this ability.

As an interim solution, the Soviet Navy designed its Kiev class vessels. At 45,000 tons, they were almost three times larger than the Moskva class, but still considerably smaller than the fully-fledged aircraft-carrier envisaged by Project 1153 Orel. Like their predecessors, they retained a very heavy offensive missile armament, allowing the Soviet Navy to classify them as 'heavy aviation cruisers', thereby circumventing the provisions of the Montreaux Convention. Despite this classification, however, they were genuine aircraft-carriers, albeit small by US standards, and were capable of operating fixed-wing aircraft (the Yakovlev Yak-38 'Forger' mentioned above).

Four Kiev class vessels were built: the Kiev, commissioned in 1975; the Minsk, 1978; the Novorossiysk, 1982; and the Baku, 1987.

Soviet aircraft carrier Kiev in 1985 (image courtesy of Wikipedia).
Yakovlev Yak-38 and Kamov Ka-25 (and/or Ka-27) aircraft are visible on deck.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, all four were renamed for historic Russian admirals, and all were removed from service during the 1990's. All have since been scrapped or sold.

Our interest lies with the fourth and last ship of the Kiev class, the Baku, named after the capital city of what was then the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. She was launched in 1982, but was only commissioned in 1987, the delay being caused by serious difficulties with her advanced electronic systems.

Baku in Soviet Navy service in 1989 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

She was markedly different in appearance to her predecessors, as the photographs below illustrate. The superstructure in the top picture belongs to Kiev, the lead ship of the class; the bottom, larger superstructure belongs to Baku. Note the latter ship's fixed radar arrays, similar to those on US Aegis-equipped warships, and multiplicity of radar domes and aerials. She was clearly far more oriented towards, and better equipped for, a modern electronic operating environment than her predecessors.

Baku was also armed differently from her predecessors, carrying 50% more P-500 Bazalt anti-ship missiles (12 instead of 8), and a brand-new anti-aircraft missile battery with 192 rounds.

She served only a few years before the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990-91. She passed from the Soviet Navy to the Russian Navy as part of that process. Since Azerbaijan had become independent as part of the breakup, it was no longer deemed appropriate to name her for its capital city. The ship was therefore renamed Admiral Gorshkov, after Sergei Gorshkov (1910-1988), who oversaw the expansion of the Soviet Navy during the Cold War.

Admiral Gorshkov had a short and troubled life in Russian Navy service. Prototypes of the Yakovlev Yak-141 vertical take-off and landing supersonic strike fighter (shown below) were tested from her flight deck in 1991. The tests (and the aircraft) proved successful, but due to lack of funds, the Yak-141 was not put into production.

On October 5th, 1991, one of the Yak-141 prototypes crashed onto the stern of Admiral Gorshkov and burst into flames. The pilot ejected safely - after sitting for almost 30 seconds in the burning aircraft! There's no word on why he took so long to eject, but I bet it wasn't so he could enjoy the warmth! Here's a video recording of the incident, filmed from a safety helicopter flying nearby.

The ship suffered a 'major machinery casualty' in 1992 that rendered her temporarily unserviceable, followed by a fire in 1993. A boiler explosion and resultant fire in February 1994 rendered her completely inoperable. She underwent repairs lasting more than a year, sailing briefly in May 1995 to test them, but returning to harbor almost immediately.

Meanwhile, her three sister ships were decommissioned and sold, leaving Admiral Gorshkov as the last surviving Kiev class ship in Russian service. The reasons were primarily financial. Such large ships required more maintenance than smaller ones, and many of their systems and machinery were unique to the Kiev class, rather than in service across multiple classes of warships (which would have provided economies of scale). The same problems affected Gorshkov too, with a few unique twists:

  • Gorshkov's one-of-a-kind electronic systems continued to cause problems, which were expensive to fix.
  • In an era when trained naval personnel were thin on the ground (or should that be 'on the sea'?), the large crew required by Gorshkov was difficult to provide. Adding to the difficulty, the later aircraft-carrier Admiral Kuznetsov (which we examined in Weekend Wings #5) was considerably larger, and better able to operate aircraft at sea, than the smaller Admiral Gorshkov. However, she didn't need many more crew than the less capable vessel, making it more logical to commit scarce manpower to the more useful ship.
  • Finally, the Navy's budget was drastically cut during the financial crises of the 1990's. As a result, ships with lower operating costs (in maintenance, crew, supplies, etc.) took priority over those, like Gorshkov, whose running costs were higher.

These liabilities doomed Admiral Gorshkov , just as they'd previously doomed her sister ships. Her turn came in 1996, when she was decommissioned and offered for sale. However, no buyer emerged for some time.

We turn now for a while to the aviation arm of the Indian Navy. This service acquired its first aircraft carrier in 1957, when it purchased the former Royal Navy Majestic class light carrier HMS Hercules. Construction of this ship had begun during World War II, but it was only about 75% complete by May 1946 when work on it was suspended. It remained in that condition until purchased by India, when it was completed with an angled flight deck and other modern technology. The Indian Navy named her INS Vikrant, and took her into service in 1961. According to Wikipedia:

"Vikranta is Sanskrit for 'stepped beyond, taking wide strides, courageous, bold, strong', from vi- = 'apart' and kram- = 'to stride'."

Vikrant and her Sea Hawk and Alizé aircraft saw action during the Indo-Pakistani wars of 1965 and 1971. (An interesting account of their service during the latter conflict may be read here.)

INS Vikrant in 1971

She was later refitted with a ski-jump ramp on the bow, to operate Sea Harrier vertical take-off and landing aircraft. INS Vikrant was retired from service in 1997, and is now a museum ship in Mumbai, India, with vintage Indian Navy aircraft displayed on her deck.

INS Vikrant as a museum ship in Mumbai, India (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Here's a video clip showing her service in the Indian Navy.

The Indian Navy realized in the 1980's that Vikrant was getting old and wearing out. In an effort to reduce the strain on their only aircraft-carrier, India bought a second aircraft-carrier from Britain, the former HMS Hermes, in 1986. She was also of World War II vintage, although only completed in the late 1950's, like Vikrant. She had seen service during the Falklands War of 1982 before being bought by India.

HMS Hermes returns in triumph from the Falklands War in 1982

She was commissioned as INS Viraat (a Sanskrit word meaning 'Giant') in 1989.

A bow view of INS Viraat

INS Viraat is currently scheduled to remain in service until 2012/13. However, delays in the arrival of new aircraft carriers may force an extension of her service life.

The rise of rival navies in the region, particularly those of India's traditional enemy Pakistan (with whom it's fought four wars since independence, and remains in conflict over Kashmir) and China, caused serious concern to Indian naval authorities. They were tasked with the maritime defense of their country against potential threats, but lacked the ability to project meaningful air power with their small, outdated aircraft carriers, neither of which was capable of operating modern strike aircraft.

Two Indian Navy Sea Harrier fighters fly in formation with a US Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet
during Exercise Malabar 07-2 over the Bay of Bengal in 2007 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

As a longer-term solution, the Indian Navy began the design of indigenous aircraft-carrying ships that could be built locally. The initial proposal in 1989 called for two 'Air Defense Ships' of 28,000 tons to replace the ageing British carriers. This proposal evolved over time, meeting considerable opposition, both politically and from the Indian Air Force. The program was renamed to 'Indigenous Aircraft Carrier' in 2006, making its purpose unambiguous for the first time. It now calls for the construction of two aircraft carriers, to be known as the Vikrant class. The first ship, which will be named INS Vikrant in order to perpetuate the name of India's first aircraft carrier, began construction in 2008, with her keel laid in early 2009.

Artist's conception of the new INS Vikrant, currently under construction

Construction is proceeding much more slowly than planned, due to delays in obtaining the necessary quality of steel from Russia, which has necessitated the establishment of new steel-making facilities in India. Completion of the first ship of the class is currently not expected before 2015. Construction of the second ship of the class, to be named INS Viraat (after the retirement of the current aircraft-carrier of that name), was scheduled to begin in 2010, but appears to have slipped as well.

Here's a 2009 video report about the project.

The first ship of the class will displace about 40,000 tons, and utilize a ski-jump bow to launch aircraft without catapults. However, according to Wikipedia:

The second aircraft carrier is said to be of higher tonnage of 65,000 tons and will utilise steam catapults. A 65,000-tonne IAC-II is on the drawing board. "It will be much bigger and capable of operating fighters, AEW (airborne early-warning) aircraft, tankers etc," Admiral Verma said. There are plans of constructing at least 3 Vikrant class carriers.

This appears to be a very likely development, given that the Indian Navy has expressed interest in the Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft.

Prototype of the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Indian Navy could operate this aircraft from land bases, of course, but to operate it from an aircraft-carrier (as the US Navy operates its Hawkeyes) would require catapult facilities; and these would be very difficult to install and operate aboard a smaller ship. It's noteworthy that even the almost-60,000-ton Russian aircraft-carrier Admiral Kuznetsov lacks catapults, so a 65,000-ton Indian carrier would suggest a minimum size requirement for the successful installation of modern catapults.

However, even while the 'Air Defense Ship' project was getting under way, it became clear that the Indian Navy would need a carrier to replace INS Vikrant before an indigenous ship could be built for that purpose. The service began looking for alternatives . . . and the Russian Navy was happy to oblige. The latter service desperately needed funds for its own building program, and to alleviate budget shortfalls; and it had the former Kiev class 'heavy aircraft cruiser' Admiral Gorshkov sitting in a dockyard, looking for a buyer.

It was an interesting negotiating process. There was no other ship available suitable for conversion into an aircraft carrier, so the Russians had a certain amount of leverage; but the Indians could always walk away from the deal if they felt they were being taken for granted as a customer. Negotiations continued during the late 1990's and into the early 2000's. Finally, in 2004, a contract was signed. India would receive the hull of Admiral Gorshkov free of charge, but would pay about US $800 million for upgrades and new equipment.

India also agreed to pay $1 billion for a dozen Mikoyan MiG-29K single-seat maritime fighter/strike aircraft (shown in the first photograph below) and four MiG-29KUB two-seat operational training aircraft (shown in the second photograph below); six Kamov Ka-31 helicopters; plus weapons and supporting systems. An option for a further 14 MiG-29K aircraft was included.

The development of the MiG-29K is very interesting. It originated as the MiG-29 land-based fighter. Two prototypes of a navalized version competed unsuccessfully with the Sukhoi Su-33 (shown below), itself a navalized version of the land-based Su-27, in the 1980's for a contract to equip Soviet naval aviation, and serve aboard the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov.

The Su-33 was considerably larger, more powerful, and longer-ranged than the smaller MiG aircraft. Reportedly, 24 Su-33's were built for the Soviet Navy before the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990's. Since then, these aircraft have suffered considerable wear and tear, and several have been lost in crashes and operational accidents. Some sources claim there are 19 left; others say that the number in flyable condition is considerably less than 19. At any rate, there appear to be insufficient to form an effective operational force. Those that remain will have to be replaced by about 2015.

The Indians would have liked to buy Su-33's for their 'new' carrier, because their Air Force operates its 'parent', the Su-27, and assembles it locally: but the aircraft is too large and heavy to be operated safely from a ship the size of the Admiral Gorshkov, even with an extended flight deck. The smaller MiG-29K, however, can be safely flown off the smaller ship. India therefore paid Mikoyan to complete the development of the MiG-29K, upgrade its systems to the latest versions, and build it for the Indian Navy. It would probably have been cheaper for India to buy US naval aircraft like the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, but at the time, political considerations made this difficult. Besides, the Super Hornet is designed to be launched using a catapult, which will not be fitted to the converted Gorshkov.

Admiral Gorshkov was renamed INS Vikramaditya. According to Wikipedia:

"Vikramāditya" is Sanskrit for "Brave as the Sun" and was the title of some of the most famous kings in Indian history, such as the Vikramaditya of Ujjain, famed as a noble ruler and a mighty warrior. It is also a title that was used by the Indian king Chandragupta II who ruled between 375-413/15 AD.

As part of her conversion, Vikramaditya was to be stripped of all the missile armament formerly carried on her foredeck, and her flight deck extended to provide a ski-jump bow. To illustrate how this changed her appearance, let's first look at a view of her bow as it was in 1988, when she was operating under the name of Baku in the Soviet Navy.

Baku's foredeck, photographed off Italy in 1988 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

As you can see, missile tubes occupied almost all the available space. By contrast, the contemporary Soviet aircraft-carrier Admiral Kuznetsov had a clear foredeck, rising to a ski-jump bow, as shown below.

Admiral Kuznetsov (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Russian proposal involved removing Vikramaditya's missile armament, then widening and extending her bow to resemble the ski-jump configuration of Admiral Kuznetsov's bow, as shown below in model form.

This lengthened Vikramaditya by no less than 10 meters (almost 33 feet), although (thanks to the removal of her missile systems and associated equipment) her weight was almost unchanged. The ship's hangar space and aircraft handling systems were also extended and upgraded, to allow her to operate MiG-29 aircraft as well as helicopters.

Vikramaditya's bow before conversion

Vikramaditya's bow during conversion

Vikramaditya's bow after conversion

Vikramaditya was supposed to be delivered to the Indian Navy in 2008, but serious delays arose in the conversion process, and disputes over costs escalated. It was reported in 2007 that Russia was threatening to keep the ship for its own use unless India agreed to pay a great deal more for the ship. This caused serious political problems in India, where the Comptroller and Audit General criticized the deal.

"The objective of inducting an aircraft carrier in time to fill the gap in Indian Navy has not been achieved," the CAG said in its annual report released on Friday.

"The cost of acquisition has more than doubled to USD 1.82 billion in four years. At best Indian Navy would be acquiring, belatedly, a second-hand ship with a limited life span by paying significantly more than what it would have paid for a new ship," it said.

. . .

According to the CAG report, the platform is scheduled to be delivered by 2012 and would be due for its second refit in India by 2017.

Moreover, the CAG report predicts that the Russian shipyard might as well fail to stick to the scheduled delivery date.

"Overall work progress continued to be slow and needed to be accelerated to meet even the revised scheduled. Given the work needed to be done, preceeding the undocking and the cascading effect of delay in undocking on downstream activities, there was a risk that the delivery acceptance trials of the ship would not be completed by 2012," the report said.

"It can be seen that Indian Navy was acquiring a second-hand refitted aircraft carrier that had half the life span of and was 60 percent more expensive that a new one," said the report.

Despite the exorbitant price tag, the CAG report points out the carrier has limited operational capabilities and certain key capabilities which would enable the ship "to meet potential threats or challenges" had either not been provided for or had been postponed to a later date.

There's more at the link. Certainly, to say that Russia appeared to be negotiating in bad faith seemed to be a serious understatement! The matter was finally resolved, after much acrimony, in 2010, when India agreed to pay a total of US $2.33 billion for Vikramaditya and the contracted upgrades and modifications, an increase of over 1½ billion dollars in the price of the ship. Unfortunately, India had little choice but to pay. If it didn't, it would lose what it had already invested in the ship, with no guarantee that Russia would refund its money. If it paid what Russia was asking, the deal would become (and is indeed) completely uneconomic, as the Indian CAG has pointed out. However, operational requirements dictated that India had to proceed, simply because no other suitable carrier (or candidate for conversion) was available. Without Vikramaditya, the Indian Navy would be unable to fulfill its operational responsibilities in the short to medium term.

INS Vikramaditya in early 2009 after leaving dry-dock

Vikramaditya is now scheduled to be delivered to the Indian Navy by the end of 2012 . . . although, given the pattern of delays and problems so far experienced, this may be open to question.

As part of the new agreement, India also ordered an additional 29 MiG-29K aircraft (over and above her original order for 16) for an amount of US $1.46 billion. This brought her total MiG-29K order to 45 aircraft, and came as a Godsend to Russian naval aviation as well. As mentioned earlier, their Su-33's were in short supply and wearing out fast. It would have been prohibitively expensive to restart the production line for them in the small quantities Russia would need. However, thanks to India, the MiG-29K production line had been restarted, and development of an upgraded version of that fighter had already been paid for. Therefore, it emerged in 2009 that Russian naval aviation will order 24 MiG-29K's to replace its surviving Su-33's. The smaller, lighter MiG's are less capable than the Su-33's, but they'll also be more affordable for a service that doesn't have much hard cash to spare. Mikoyan (now part of the United Aircraft Corporation in Russia, along with its former rival, Sukhoi) will thus produce a total of 69 MiG-29K's, which is a much more economical proposition than the mere 16 aircraft originally ordered by India.

Here's a Russian-language news report from 2009 about flight deck testing of the new-production MiG-29K's aboard the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov.

Vikramaditya was floated out of dry-dock in late 2009 for initial trials. She's currently undergoing installation of her electronic systems. Indian Navy personnel are working alongside Russians to do the work and learn her systems as they install them, which should make future maintenance and upgrades easier for Indian shipyards. As can be seen in the photograph above, Vikramaditya's extended ski-jump flight deck has altered her center of gravity, making her bow-heavy (illustrated by the angle of the waterline against her paint, which shows her to be down by the bows). However, she doesn't have her aircraft or supplies aboard yet. That will presumably change her weight distribution enough to bring her back to an even keel. (If it doesn't, it will raise questions about her ability to cruise safely in rough seas.)

Vikramaditya should begin dockyard trials soon, to prepare her for delivery to the Indian Navy by late next year. The first MiG-29K's have already been delivered to the Indian Navy, and are being prepared for service aboard her. Here's a news report from Russia about progress.

It's been a long, strange road for the former Baku. She's undergone many changes:

  • From being part of the much-feared and -hyped Soviet Union's Navy, to the much smaller and financially crippled Russian Navy, and shortly to a new and wholly different service;
  • From being the latest and most sophisticated warship of her kind in the world, to a technological white elephant rusting at anchor, to being resurrected in a totally different form;
  • From being named for a Communist city, to being named for a Communist admiral, to being named for 'some of the most famous kings in Indian history' (what would the anti-imperialist Marx have said to that, I wonder?);
  • Transformed from a 'heavy aircraft cruiser' with a substantial missile armament, to a fully-fledged aircraft-carrier; and -
  • About to go from the cold of the waters around the former Soviet Union to the warmth of the Indian Ocean.

Perhaps she'll be a happier and more successful ship in warmer climes. One hopes so, for the sake of those who'll serve aboard her.

On a final, ironic note: two of the former Kiev class ships, Kiev and Minsk, ended up being sold to China, ostensibly for use as static displays in military theme parks. However, we may be sure that the Chinese defense industry has learned all it can through detailed study of them. China also bought the derelict hull of Varyag, sister ship to Admiral Kuznetsov, from the Ukraine in 1998. That's quite a story in itself. According to Wikipedia:

In April 1998, Ukrainian Trade Minister Roman Shpek announced the winning bid - US$20 million from a small Hong Kong company called the Chong Lot Travel Agency Ltd. Chong Lot proposed to tow Varyag out of the Black Sea, through the Suez Canal and around southern Asia to Macau, where they would moor the ship and convert it into a floating hotel and gambling parlor. It would be similar to the attractions Kiev in Tianjin and Minsk at Minsk World in Shenzhen.

However, considerable evidence suggested that the future of Varyag was linked to the People's Republic of China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and its program to develop an aircraft carrier.

. . .

In mid-2000, the Dutch ITC tugboat Suhaili with a Filipino crew was hired to take Varyag under tow. However, Chong Lot could not get permission from Turkey to transit the dangerous Bosporus strait; under the Montreux Treaty of 1936 Turkey has obligations to permit free passage, but has certain sovereignty and refusal rights. The hulk spent 16 months under commercial tow circling in the Black Sea. High-level PRC government ministers conducted negotiations in Ankara on Chong Lot's behalf, offering to allow Chinese tourists to visit cash-strapped Turkey if the travel agency's ship were allowed to pass through the straits. On 1 November 2001, Turkey finally relented from its position that the vessel posed too great of a danger to the bridges of Istanbul, and allowed the transit.

Varyag prior to being towed through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles in 2001
(image courtesy of Wikipedia)

. . .

China continued to assert that Varyag would be a casino. However, when Macau awarded new casino licenses in February 2002, Chong Lot was not among successful bidders. The hulk was tied up at Dalian and left to rust. The total cost of acquiring the hulk was over $30 million USD: $25 million to the Ukrainian government for the hull, nearly $500,000 in transit fees, and some $5 million for the towing.

Analysts believe that the PLAN will use Varyag as a training platform for carrier take-offs and landings. Robert Karniol, the Asia editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, said: "The Chinese haven't seen this type of carrier before and it could be very useful to them. They are trying to vacuum up as much know-how as they can".

. . .

... the Varyag was moved in early June 2005 to a dry dock at Dalian. Her hull was sandblasted and scaffolding erected around her. The most visible modification done to the Varyag is that her island has been painted in a red marine primer that is used to treat corroded metal. On 24 October 2006, the Kommersant online daily newspaper revealed Russia plans to sell up to 50 Su-33 fighters to China through Rosoboronexport, in a $2.5 billion deal. However, in March 2009 Moskovskij Komsomolets reported that these negotiations had collapsed over Russian fears that China might begin producing cheaper export versions of the Su-33 with Chinese avionics and systems, undercutting Russian exports, in the same way as with the J-11B (Chinese version of the Su-27).

. . .

Jane's Fighting Ships states that Varyag may have been named Shi Lang and assigned pennant number 83. Jane's notes that both the name and pennant number are unconfirmed, however. Shi Lang was a Ming-Qing Dynasty admiral who conquered Taiwan in 1681.

. . .

As of 2011 the ship is still docked in Dalian shipyard, and is being fitted out with combat sensors, and defensive weapons.

Shi Lang (formerly Varyag) in Dalian shipyard

The vessel is also beginning to run power as well. Recent photos have shown steam and exhaust coming from the ship's island, further suggesting her engines and propulsion will be operational soon.

There's more at the link.

India's rival for naval superiority in the Indian Ocean will therefore soon field its own aircraft carriers . . . probably embodying lessons learned from Vikramaditya's sister ships; and China's first aircraft carrier will probably be the sister ship of Vikramaditya's old partner in the Soviet and Russian Navies, the Admiral Kuznetsov. Ironic, isn't it?



Rev. Paul said...

Fascinating; thank you. The destroyer on which I served was sent into the Black Sea in '74 to obtain pictures of the Soviets' flat-top under construction, if possible. They allowed us to stay for 3 days & then made it clear our continued presence was unwelcome. Sailing past the minarets of Istanbul remains a vivid memory.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like they painted themselves into a bit of a corner, but I reckon they'll learn from this for their next-generation ships. I mean, if they enjoy sovereignty.


Anonymous said...

A most interesting piece, and very well done.Thanks.

The Raving Prophet said...

Interesting. Good stuff.

Looks like the Russians are laughing themselves all the way to the bank. They put the screws to the Indians over the ship (if the Indians hadn't paid, they'd have had a much modernized carrier for not much cash outlay), then had India cover the costs of further developing the MiG-29K.

I wonder if India might have been able to get a relative deal on a decommissioned Kitty Hawk class and brought it back to usefulness for less... then they'd have a REAL carrier.

perlhaqr said...

Who could imagine that doing business with the Russians was a bad idea...

Old NFO said...

Very well done Peter! And dang good research! :-)

MrGarabaldi said...

Excellent research, Thank you for the article.


vikrmaditya said...

well article so much knowledge and imressive presentation . well done peter keep it on......