Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Carrier? Casino? Boo-Boo? The Strange Tale of the Varyag


During discussions about what happened to submarines from the old Soviet navy, the talk turned to the fate of the Varyag, a CTOL (Conventional Take Off/Landing) aircraft carrier built by the Soviets just before the regime fell down and went splat. The Varyag was a follow-up to the Kuznetsov, and neither was exactly a rousing success.

This was due to a number of factors, including sharp declines in military spending and the inability of Soviet pilots to land on the deck while underway. When studies were finally done to apply the carriers to Soviet Naval Doctrine, it was discovered that the carriers could neither operate alone, nor could sufficient ships be allocated to create carrier groups. With the replacement of Admiral Gorshkov by the far less influential Chernavin, surface ships were dropped to second-tier attention and submarines took the lion’s share of development resources.

The problem for the Soviets was, they had committed to two CTOL carriers; the Kuznetsov (originally dubbed the 'Leonid Breshnev', then the 'Tbilisi') and the Varyag. The long-term planning, once considered a trump card in USSR strategy, prevented the use of the resources for anything else, and there was precious little alternative use for a carrier. By the time the decision was made to not pursue the full deployment of the carriers, both were more than half-done, and there was no choice but to continue to a point where the vessels might be either deployed if they caught the favor of a future Kremlin, or else sold for badly-needed revenue. To conceal the lack of completion, both ships were regularly covered in tarps and netting as if protecting a valued asset. The Russians handed over the Varyag to Ukraine in 1992, and decided that for the Kuznetsov, the best hope for a good price was to create an image of an effective capital ship. The Kuznetsov was deployed to the Mediterranean in 1995, where it had a nasty habit of running into its escorts, and the Kuznetsov was brought back to port in 1996.

The ruse worked at first. China and India engaged in a bidding war for the Kuznetsov, which India won in 1998 with a bid of $700 million US, the estimated price for completing the necessary work on the Kuznetsov. For a ship appraised at $2.4 Billion US, this seemed like a bargain. As the Indians inspected their prize, however, they found reason to doubt their purchase. The engines already needed replacement, and the Russian attempts to develop a working catapult system produced a system which failed often, and the rudders were insufficient for the ship’s mass. India renamed the ship the INS Vikramaditya, and plans to launch it into service in 2008. Rumors of extensive and expensive refits surround the delay from the initial planned deployment.

There is a site devoted specifically to the adventures of the Varyag, but they mostly focus on history and photos. It appears that the Chinese used French commercial satellites to get a better look at the Varyag, and so understood the condition before buying the ship. The Chinese bought the Varyag for the equivalent of $20 Million US, then towed the Varyag to a dockyard at Dalian, where there have been all manner of rumors, but little work on the ship. China collected the Russian STOL carriers Minsk and Kiev as well, which were sailed into Chinese waters and used for a variety of purposes before being permanently docked as attractions in coastal amusement parks in 2004.

The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) does not consider Dalian to be a true naval base, and if the pace of work is any indicator (to say nothing of the fact that the shipyard is making no effort to hide the 'Varyag' from satellites), the Chinese do not really know what to do with it. The Varyag started construction in 1985, with something less than top-priority given to its work. The work stopped completely in 1992, when Russia turned the carrier over to Ukraine, who immediately began trying to sell the thing. The fact that the Varyag was incomplete, and that the installed electronics were stripped by the Russians before handing over to the Ukraine, was kept hidden from the outside world.

Robert Karniol, the Asia/Pacific editor at Jane's Information Group (subscription), told United Press International on June 17 that "The Varyag is not capable of being turned into a viable aircraft carrier; it'll end up as scrap or a tourist attraction somewhere."

So, what is the fate of the Varyag? Given the fate of the Melbourne, Kiev, and Minsk before it, the lack of repairs to the ship, and the complete lack of interest in building the necessary escort vessels for it, I suspect the Chinese will study the Varyag intently for some time, after which it was be, as promised, made into a casino for Shanghai. What the Chinese can learn from the Varyag remains to be seen.

No comments: