China is gearing up to form its first naval fighter fleet, with local newspapers reporting that around 50 cadet pilots have started training with a naval academy.

"The first pilot programme of recruiting pilot cadets is an important decision of the PLA [People's Liberation Army] navy to realise a strategic transformation," says the PLA Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese military.

"The first batch of pilot cadets will receive a four-year education in the shipborne aircraft flight field of study. They will focus on the basic theories of surface ship and flight, apart from the basic theories and skills required in the automation field of study," it says.

While China does not have any carrier-based aircraft yet, it has been in talks with Russia over the purchase of the Sukhoi Su-33, a naval version of the Su-27 fighter. Industry sources have suggested that Beijing could initially buy three of the type and increase that to 50 eventually. China is also reportedly keen to develop carrier-based variants of indigenous types such as the Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-11.

The pilot training academy is in Dalian, a coastal city that is already a major training facility for the country's naval aviation fleets. China has been planning to develop a blue-water navy for several years, and the new reports are probably the first acknowledgement by the country's highly secretive military of the existence of a structured programme for naval fighters.

Beijing bought the surplus Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier Varyag from Russia earlier this decade. The ship has reportedly been renamed Shi Lang and has been docked at Dalian since 2002, but little else has been heard about it. Analysts, however, say that refurbishment work appears to have intensified in recent months and that could be part of the preparations for the fixed-wing training programme.

Some reports suggest that the vessel could begin sea trials in 2009 and subsequently be used as a training platform for carrier take-offs and landings, while others speculate that it could eventually enter active service. China is also keen to study the technology and eventually begin work on an indigenous aircraft carrier programme.

Source: Flight International