January 31, 2011, 4:37 PM HKT Video: Chinese Aircraft Carrier Caught on Tape New video footage of China’s first aircraft carrier has been posted online, less than a month after images of its stealth fighter prototype making a test flight sent shock waves around the world.
The footage appears to show the Varyag, which was purchased from Ukraine in 1998, moving through the Dalian shipyard in northeastern China where it is being refurbished.
It is not clear when the grainy footage was taken, or by whom, and it does not appear to reveal anything new about the capabilities of the carrier, which U.S. defense officials expect to be launched this year or next.
But the footage has nonetheless caused a stir among Chinese amateur military enthusiasts, racking up more than 750,000 page views since it was posted Friday.
Chinese authorities maintain strict security around military installations, and routinely block or delete politically sensitive material from the Internet, often detaining those who post it.
But they appear to be allowing images such as these, and those of the J-20 stealth fighter to be circulated online partly to demonstrate its military advances to foreign countries, and partly to impress an increasingly nationalistic domestic audience.
The carrier program is considered the centerpiece of China’s military modernization drive as it is expected to significantly enhance the country’s ability to project power around, and far beyond, its own shores.
Defense experts say the Varyag – believed to have been re-named the Shi Lang after a Chinese general who conquered Taiwan in 1681– may only be used as a floating platform for testing the pilots and planes that will eventually be deployed on much larger, indigenously-developed carriers.
But they expect at least five of those indigenous carriers to be deployed in the 2020s, either with Su-33 carrier-based fighter jets that Russia is trying to sell China, or with a Chinese version of the Su-33, the first clear pictures of which were posted online last year.
Combined with the anti-ship ballistic missile that U.S. officials believe China is also about to deploy, that would force the U.S. to re-calculate the risk of intervening in a regional conflict, especially over Taiwan.
The U.S. sent two carriers to the Taiwan Strait after China fired missiles near the island’s coast in 1996. Despite Chinese protests, the U.S. also sent a carrier to take part in joint exercises with South Korea last year after a North Korean artillery raid on a South Korean island.
A Macau-based company purchased the disused hull of the Varyag – without its engines, weapons or navigation systems — for $20 million in 1998 saying it planned to turn the ship into a casino in the former Portuguese enclave.
It began its journey to China in 2000, but spent more than a year circling the Black Sea because Turkish authorities said it was too big to navigate the Bosphorus strait that leads to the Mediterranean. They allowed it to pass through in 2001.
But the ship was then towed to Dalian, instead of Macau, and has been undergoing refurbishment there ever since. Several photographs of the ship have been posted online in recent years appear to show that work has been progressing rapidly.
Kanwa Asian Defence, an online magazine based in Canada, reported this month that work had been completed on the carrier’s living and working compartments, engines, navigation systems and power-generating equipment. Additional work was still needed on the elevator and flight deck, it said, but it was unclear when the restoration would be completed.