NAVAL WAR COLLEGE REVIEW
Many of Varyag’s apparent disadvantages as a first carrier for China can be viewed in fact as advantages. Varyag was delivered without weapons, electronics suites, or propulsion, so though start-up costs would be high, the potential for customization is considerable. Further in its favor, Varyag is a very large ship, de- signed to displace 67,500 tons fully loaded; it can therefore be equipped with a variety of aircraft and shipboard systems. It is also a known quantity, in that the Soviets experimented with similar carriers and thought through related doc- trinal issues. Finally, “off the shelf” aircraft, including helicopters, CTOL, and VSTOL, already exist that are known to work with the design and have been de- ployed aboard the Varyag’s sister ship, Admiral Kuznetzov.
On the downside, and though the Chinese can build a conventional power plant as well as a shaft and screws sufficient to propel the Varyag, it seems un- likely that the reverse engineering this effort would entail could be easy or fast. In addition, a large conventionally powered carrier could not operate far from Chinese home waters without a combination of friendly foreign ports (to which access is presently uncertain) or a robust underway-replenishment capability. On this latter point, the PLAN regularly performs resupply and even repairs at sea and could obviously learn from the practice of navies that now deploy con- ventional carriers. The Chinese, no doubt, are closely watching Indian efforts at purchasing and eventually operationalizing the former Soviet Kiev-class VSTOL carrier Admiral Gorshkov. Since India has operated ex-British carriers for years, it already has a great deal of carrier experience, however, so China will inevitably start far behind India’s level of expertise in actual carrier aviation and operation.
China’s old carriers, especially Minsk and Kiev, were probably purchased as “ca- davers” to be dissected to inform indigenous design. Varyag—while it will cer- tainly serve that purpose, especially as it reflects the largest and most advanced Soviet carrier design—may ultimately also be used for pilot and deck crew train- ing, as well as a “test platform” for general research and the development of cata- pults, arresting gear, and other ship-board systems.38 To this end, Varyag may be retrofitted with a power plant, shafts, and screws so that it can go to sea under its own power, but training and equipment experimentation will likely be the extent of its capabilities in the near term. Further out, a modestly capable Varyag may be- come a centerpiece of Beijing’s naval diplomacy by showing the flag and, in addi- tion to training (following the model of the Shichang, discussed below), could potentially be used for humanitarian operations and disaster relief. But as with everything concerning Varyag, these projections are highly speculative.
COMMERCIAL CONVERSION A final option would be to reconfigure a large commercial vessel as an aircraft car- rier. A possible indication of austerity, flexibility, and commercial orientation is