Steady as she goes: aircraft appear aboard China’s Varyag

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Returned from AUVSI in Las Vegas today to discover the PLANhas placed a few aircraft aboard the Varyag. Nothing as dramatic as India’sMiG-29KUB tests off the Vikramaditya in Russia’s White Sea, but a definite stepin toward the first fixed wing flight to and from an aircraft carrier by aChinese pilot.

The fighter in the pictures is the Shenyang J-15. Thisaircraft, the Chinese version of the Su-33, has been seen before. The folding wings and tail are to be expected, butI’m a bit surprised by the shortened canopy. The Su-27 family typically has abubble cockpit for a good all-round view, but with this aircraft the canopy iscut off by the fuselage. Odd.

They probably have the aircraft aboard to work out handlingissues 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 anexternal radar array located to the rear of the fuselage. Presumably this canbe lowered when the helicopter is in flight. Images of this aircraft first cameto light last year. The helicopter has a folding tail for easier storage.

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I’m reading a fascinating book called ChinaAerospace Power: Emerging Maritime Roles. It is a compilation of essays aboutthe role of Chinese airpower in China’s oceanic frontier.  One of the writers (his name escapes me atthe moment) discusses China’s carrier plans at length.

He does not see China producing carriers to challenge thoseof 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 asthe USA’s E-2C Hawkeye, China’s carriers will be more effective (not to mention lessvulnerable) if covered by fixed wing AEW&C assets operated from bases inChina.

During peacetime, the ship will be used for both flying theflag and helping out with international humanitarian efforts. He writes thatChina was embarrassed by its inability to lend a hand after the 2004Tsunami that devastated Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. 

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