Rumours of Asian aircraft carriers

By Joe Varner

For centuries, naval power rested on the shoulders of "wooden ships and iron men". And it was not until the 1860s that iron-clad warships replaced the wooden ships that had dominated naval history since the time of the galley.

The naval landscape changed dramatically again in 1906 with the commissioning of HMS Dreadnought which ushered in the age of the battleship. The battleship remained the dominant measure of naval power until 1940, when the Italian battle fleet anchorage at Taranto was attacked successfully by carrier-borne aircraft of the Royal Navy. Those that doubted the rise to strategic prominence of the aircraft carrier only had to wait until 7 December 1941, at an American naval anchorage called Pearl Harbor, to have their worst fears confirmed. The sinking of the RN's Force "Z" in the South China Sea a few days later by the Japanese confirmed the demise of the battleship. Since those black days in 1941, carrier aviation has been a dominant feature of sea power.

Despite the fact that it was the Royal Navy which ushered in the aircraft carrier age with the commissioning of HMS Argus in 1918, the RN has struggled against political pressure to pay off its carriers since the 1960s, but has been able to maintain some carrier capability. Only now in an age of rapid response are British politicians again interested in acquiring new carriers. France has also struggled to maintain a carrier capability in its navy. The old Soviet Union spent two decades trying to develop carrier aviation in their navy, but with the collapse of the Soviet empire and the downturn in the Russian economy, carriers were found too expensive and now only one survives. In the 1970s and 1980s, three medium-sized Western navies abandoned their aircraft carriers as too expensive: the Netherlands in 1968, Canada in 1970, and Australia in 1984. Even the United States, the world's foremost naval power, is struggling to maintain its sizable carrier fleet in the face of domestic and economic tranquillity.

Only in Asia are navies seemingly driving towards aircraft carrier capabilities, and of Asian aircraft carriers there is both fact, and what might be termed "rumour". India and Thailand have aircraft carriers, Japan might acquire one, and China is striving towards aircraft carrier capabilities, if it does not have it already.

India's history of aircraft carrier operation is not as clear as it would seem on the surface. The first aircraft carrier was acquired from its former colonial master, the United Kingdom, in 1957 when it purchased a 19,500 ton ex-Majestic Class Light Fleet Carrier HMS Hercules. She was commissioned by the Indian Navy as INS Vikrant in 1961, and served until 1995 when she was decommissioned.

Rumours persist that the Vikrant was actually replaced mid-life by her sister ship, the Canadian aircraft carrier Bonaventure that was allegedly scrapped in 1971. Bonaventure had undergone a multi-million dollar refit in the late 1960's when she was decommissioned in 1970 as part of the Trudeau defence rationalization. In a 1989 Oral History Project of the Library of Parliament, Senator J. Michael Forrestall, a former Progressive Conservative Party defence critic in the House of Commons, cast doubt on the Bonaventure's supposed early demise.

In 1971, with Halifax Herald reporter Mike Bembridge, Senator Forrestall attempted to track down Bonaventure. The ship had been sold to Japan for scrap, but after leaving for the Japanese yard, disappeared for two weeks. Then, as though nothing was wrong, the ex-Bonaventure showed up in a Japanese yard to be cut to pieces, and all was well. That is until DND photographs of the hull being cut up suggested to the keen observer that the Indian Vikrant was actually the ship being destroyed. One evening, Forrestall called the Indian Embassy and asked the Military Attache how the Bonaventure was working out. The Attache replied, "splendid, we are quite pleased with it." and then, realizing his slip, immediately hung up the phone. Senator Forrestall contends that Bonaventure, which had just received a substantial refit, was switched in the dark of night at sea for the INS Vikrant, badly in need of a refit, and that it was the Vikrant which was actually destroyed. Perhaps we will never know.

The aging INS Vikrant, or Bonaventure, was complemented by the acquisition of the INS Viraat in 1986. Viraat was formerly the United Kingdom's 28,700 ton HMS Hermes, the flagship of the British task force during the Falklands War. Viraat entered service in 1987 and is still in service today. A plan was announced in 1989, according to the respected Jane's Fighting Ships 1998-99, to replace the aging British-built carriers with two new 28,000 ton aircraft carriers. This has not come to pass, and has since been refined in 1997, to a 24,000 ton air defence ship of domestic origin. After a long period when rumours abounded that the modified Russian, Kiev-class carrier Admiral Gorshkov would be sold to India, it finally happened in 1999.

Thailand, a country with no history of aircraft carrier operations, curiously joined the carrier club in 1997 with the commissioning of the small 11, 485 ton V/STOL carrier HMTS Chakri Naruebet. The Spanish designed and built Chakri Naruebet is only slightly smaller than Spain's carrier Principe de Asturias, and according to Jane's Fighting Ships 1998-99 is capable of operating 6 AV-8s harrier fighters and 6 S-70B Seahawk helicopters. Although, it will take Thailand's navy some time to become fully conversant in carrier operations, the deployment of a Thai aircraft carrier certainly begs the question as to how long China and Japan are willing to play second fiddle to a small state like Thailand, and how long it will take those two powers to deploy their own aircraft carriers?

Japan's history with aircraft carriers goes back to the 1920s when Japan was Asia's foremost naval power, and ended with World War II. Japan's carrier fleet took on the United States and its British Commonwealth allies for mastery of the Pacific and was eventually defeated. The end of the Second World War in September 1945, and the new Japanese constitution that only allowed "defensive forces", spelled the end of Japanese militarism, and Japan's aircraft carrier ambitions for about two generations. This may be about to change, as Japan commissioned in early 1998 what it calls the Osumi-class multi-purpose, amphibious warfare ship. The Osumi-class, according to the 25 March, 1998, issue of Jane's Defence Weekly, is an almost 9, 000-ton warship featuring a vehicle deck, well deck, and a helicopter flight deck. It can carry 10 main battle tanks, several helicopters, and is clearly designed for a power projection role. The ship looks remarkably like a small helicopter carrier, and according to Jane's Fighting Ships 1998-99, the forward end of the flight deck looks strangely unfinished as though it might be fitted with a ski-jump at a later time. A second ship in this class is in the estimates, and while the Osumi is small, it and future ships might be used to gain further experience in large ship and flight deck operations. A South Korean scholar, Lee Chung Min, has suggested that Japan could produce two fully operational aircraft carrier battle groups within five years, and given the quick production of the Osumi, he might well be right. It certainly stands out as a good interim step towards a fully fledged aircraft carrier.

Most importantly, China deployed its first air-capable vessel this past year, and is rumoured to be moving towards an aircraft carrier. The People's Liberation Army Navy PLA(N) training ship Shichang looks like a smaller version of the Royal Navy's RFA Argus aviation training ship. Shichang, according to the 10 June, 1998, issue of Jane's Defence Weekly, is designed with its super structure forward and large space aft for either 2 Harbin Zhi-9A helicopters or containers, much like the Arapaho concept tested by the Royal Navy on RFA Reliant in the 1980s. This should serve as a good training platform for the PLA(N) that has no experience in large ship handling or flight deck operations, but wants to develop an aircraft carrier battle group of its own.

Rumour has it that China has been working on its own aircraft carrier program since 1984, when Australia decommissioned HMAS Melbourne, another 19,500 ton ex-Majestic Class Light Fleet Carrier, and sistership of the HMCS Bonaventure. Melbourne was sold to China for breaking, and arrived at a Shanghai yard in 1985 according to the 20 October, 1994, issue of Far Eastern Economic Review, where it sat undisturbed except for regular visits by PLA engineers until 1994, and may still be in existence. It is clear from an article entitled "The Aviation Dream of the Chinese People" that appeared in the July, 1994 issue of Shidian, a semi-official magazine of the China News Service, that PLA(N) officers are being trained in large ship handling courses and flight deck operations. There have been several reports of the Chinese reconfiguring a runway to resemble an aircraft carrier deck for flight deck landing training by PLA pilots. Additionally, in 1987 an F-8 Chinese fighter was shot off of a steam catapult at the Lushun naval base according to the Far Eastern Economic Review. Additionally, according to the 10 October, 1996, issue of Far Eastern Economic Review in 1996 attempts were made by China to acquire the aging 32,700 ton, nuclear-capable French aircraft carrier Clemenceau, due to be retired from service and replaced by the new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle.

Recently, the 37,100 ton Russian modified Kiev-class Aircraft Carrier Minsk was sold to South Korea for scrap, but it now appears to have been re-sold and delivered to China. Most disturbing though is the recent 1997 sale of the 75 percent complete 67, 000 ton Ukrainian aircraft carrier Varyag (ex-Russian Kuznetsov Class) to a supposed Macao-based amusement firm, Chong Lot Travel Agency Limited. Chong Lot bought the ship for 20 million dollars and claimed that it was going to anchor the ship in the Portugese colony's harbour as a floating casino according to ABC News. The ship was being towed to China as of November 1998.

However, Macao harbour authorities do not want it, and have no room for the Varyag in the shallow harbour. Surprisingly, Chong Lot's offices in Macao do not exist. Chong Lot is a subsidiary of another firm based out of Hong Kong called Chin Luck Holdings. Chin Luck's board of directors all hail from Shandong Province on the mainland, a ship-building province, and as a matter of coincidence its Chairman happens to be a former PLA general officer. It is also probably just a coincidence that China purchased the rights for SU-27K fighters from Russia, the naval version of that advanced aircraft. Whether or not the aircraft carrier, partially completed and rusting, has been purchased for the PLA is open to question, but it certainly is in China's interest to get a carrier up and running now if it wants to challenge its neighbours in the Spratlys and the South China Sea. Completing Varyag and making it operational will take many million dollars, but with plans calling for an operational carrier by 2020 approved by the 15th Communist Party Congress, Varyag may be a quick fix solution allowing the PLA(N) time to gain experience in both carrier design and operation.

Asian navies are on the rise, and the days of second rate Asian naval forces are coming to an end in the face of what they see as maritime threats. The Asian interest in aircraft carrier aviation seems to climb in leaps and bounds whenever its value is demonstrated by carrier club nations, such as the United States deployment of carriers to the Straits of Taiwan in 1996, and the Persian Gulf in the last action against Saddam Hussein this past year. At present, whether fact or fiction, western navies had better get used to the idea of Asian aircraft carriers, and rumours of Asian aircraft carriers, because it seems increasingly likely that the rumours are coming true. Observers will have to ask themselves whether by 2020 Chinese carrier battle groups will cruise the South China Seas and beyond. Only time will tell as to the wisdom of a declining Russia, and a careless "West" sending ships to China for breaking -- along with their precious technology.

Joe Varner is a Contributing Editor to Maritime Affairs specializing Asia-Pacific security issues.

Copyright � 1999 Joe Varner
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