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World Naval Developments 2011-2012

Eastern Promises

One might even go further. Americans remember that Texas seceded from Mexico after enough Americans settled there to demand an end to Mexican rule (not long afterward Texas joined the United States). Is Siberia a Chinese equivalent of Texas? Might Chinese become the majority of the population, and might they then prefer paying taxes to Beijing rather than to Moscow?

Indian Navy aircraft carrier INS Viraat Exercise Malabar 2007

The Indian Navy aircraft carrier INS Viraat (R 22) participates in Exercise Malabar 2007. The Indian Navy, a longtime carrier operator, is building a new carrier (or two) of its own design as well as procuring the refurbished and refitted former Soviet carrier Admiral Gorshkov, to be renamed Vikramaditya. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jason A. Johnston

The odd history of the ex-Varyag is not particularly enlightening on such scores. The Chinese bought the ship after the breakdown of the Soviet Union separated the building yard, at Nikolaev in Ukraine, from the Russian navy. Under those circumstances the ship was inexpensive, and it was widely believed to be little more than a hulk. The Chinese buyer was supposed to be a company in Macao that wanted to use the hulk as a casino, but once the carrier left the Black Sea it became clear that the company was nothing more than a shell. At the time, it was reported that the Chinese exerted enormous pressure on Turkey to allow the ship through the Turkish Straits, going so far as to promise tourist traffic in exchange.

One reason it was assumed that the Varyag was a worthless hulk (to be used, perhaps, to learn about carrier structural design) was that satellite photos of the building yard showed much of the planned weaponry laid out on the pier rather than aboard the ship. The ship also lacked propellers. However, the ship’s designers observed that her boilers and engines were complete, and had not been stripped in any way.

Once in China, the ship was laid up at a commercial shipyard, and for some years it appeared that no work was being done on her. It seems likely that the ship was being redesigned. For example, as Varyag, she would have carried a powerful battery of SS-N-19 long-range anti-ship missiles, in space that might otherwise have been a hangar. As completed for China, the ship has no such missiles, and presumably has a much larger hangar than planned by the Russians. The ship also has Chinese (rather than Russian) radars, command system (presumably), and weaponry, the weaponry being considerably lighter than in the Russian design.


The Indian navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarine Chakra is finally in service, bringing India back into the ranks of nuclear submarine operators and comprising a formidable capability. Indian navy photo

It was some time before it became clear that the ship was being completed. The first unambiguous sign was the reconstruction of her island to take Chinese radars (some of Russian design, but including the Ukrainian-designed active array on board some Chinese destroyers). By that time, considerable internal work had probably already been done, and it would have been hidden by the ship’s structure. Work was also proceeding to develop the necessary Chinese shipboard aircraft. All of that must have taken time, and it would have been largely or entirely invisible to satellites or to interested eyes. Without knowing when design work began in earnest, we cannot know when someone in authority decided that the PLAN should be more than a coastal force.

Every country in the Western Pacific clearly feels the effect of Chinese naval growth, particularly since that growth is giving the Chinese at least the potential to operate far afield. The most obvious counter to the new Chinese force is submarines.

The PLAN does not appear to have enormous anti-submarine resources, and it will generally operate in warm, relatively shallow water extremely well adapted to submarine operations (because it is so badly adapted to ASW). The current boom in East Asian submarine construction would, then, seem to be a reaction to the likely growth of a PLAN naval projection force.

For years the Indian Navy has argued that it needs a far larger proportion of Indian defense spending in order to face a perceived Chinese threat. It often cites U.S. reports, since discredited, that China is building up a “string of pearls” along the shore of the Bay of Bengal – bases from which the PLAN might operate against vital Indian trade routes. It is not yet clear to what extent the Indian Navy has convinced its government. It has secured funds for a wide variety of new ships, including both an ex-Soviet carrier (somewhat smaller than the ex-Varyag) and a new construction carrier (or two), and it has ambitious surface ship and submarine programs, the latter including leases on two Russian-built nuclear submarines. India has had its own nuclear submarine program for some years, and the launch of a prototype submarine has been announced – but in the absence of photographs of a hull in the water, launch may really have meant only keel-laying, in the sense that the nuclear submarine program has been launched. [Editor’s note: The Indian navy has since released photos of its newest indigenously-constructed submarine as well as its leased Akula-class boat.] The Indian nuclear submarine program seems to be associated with a ballistic missile.

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Norman Friedman is an internationally known strategist and naval historian. He is the author of...