Returned from AUVSI in Las Vegas today to discover the PLAN has placed a few aircraft aboard the Varyag. Nothing as dramatic as India's MiG-29KUB tests off the Vikramaditya in Russia's White Sea, but a definite step in toward the first fixed wing flight to and from an aircraft carrier by a Chinese pilot.
The fighter in the pictures is the Shenyang J-15. This aircraft, the Chinese version of the Su-33, has been seen before. The folding wings and tail are to be expected, but I'm a bit surprised by the shortened canopy. The Su-27 family typically has a bubble cockpit for a good all-round view, but with this aircraft the canopy is cut off by the fuselage. Odd.
They probably have the aircraft aboard to work out handling issues associated with fixed wing deck operations. It is preferable to figure out where to tie an aircraft down when the ship is parked by the pier, as opposed to waiting until it is underway in rolling seas. New Zealand conducted similar trials recently with an NH90 aboard the HMNZS Canterbury.
The helicopter appears to be a Z-8AEW, apparently with an external radar array located to the rear of the fuselage. Presumably this can be lowered when the helicopter is in flight. Images of this aircraft first came to light last year. The helicopter has a folding tail for easier storage.
I'm reading a fascinating book called China Aerospace Power: Emerging Maritime Roles. It is a compilation of essays about the role of Chinese airpower in China's oceanic frontier. One of the writers (his name escapes me at the moment) discusses China's carrier plans at length.
He does not see China producing carriers to challenge those of the USA on the high seas. China will use carriers, rather, to menace unruly neighbours (Vietnam, the Philippines) in South China Sea territorial disputes. Since helicopter AEW&C systems are inferior to fixed-wing types such as the USA's E-2C Hawkeye, China's carriers will be more effective (not to mention less vulnerable) if covered by fixed wing AEW&C assets operated from bases in China.
During peacetime, the ship will be used for both flying the flag and helping out with international humanitarian efforts. He writes that China was embarrassed by its inability to lend a hand after the 2004 Tsunami that devastated Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.