Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sea Trials Begin for Chinese Aircraft Carrier

TAIPEI - China's state-run Xinhua News Agency announced Aug. 10 the beginning of sea trials for China's first aircraft carrier, the former Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag.
China's first aircraft carrier, the former Soviet carrier Varyag which China bought from Ukraine in 1998, undergoes refitting at the port of Dalian on July 4. The aircraft carrier started its first sea trial Aug. 10, the state news agency Xinhua said (AFP)
"China's refitted aircraft carrier left its shipyard at Dalian Port in northeast Liaoning Province on Wednesday morning to start its first sea trial," said the Xinhua report. "Military sources said that the first sea trial was in line with schedule of the carrier's refitting project and would not take a long time. After returning from the sea trial, the aircraft carrier will continue refit and test work."
Photos of the Varyag indicate it has been outfitted with an active phased array radar (similar to the U.S. Aegis System), a Type 381 Sea Eagle Radar, a 30mm Type-1030 close-in weapon system, and an FL-3000 Flying Leopard air defense missile system.
The large number of personnel on board recently and the testing of the engines, with smoke belching from the funnel, indicate that the propulsion systems have been installed and the ship is reaching seaworthiness, said Gary Li, an intelligence analyst for U.K.-based Exclusive Analysis.
Debate and mystery still surround the former Kuznetsov-class carrier. Procured by a Hong Kong travel agency in 1998 for $20 million, purportedly to serve as a casino in Macau, the Varyag has been the focus of debate among China watchers ever since it bypassed Macau for the Dalian Shipyard in northeast China in 2002.
The Chinese-language media are still arguing over whether the vessel will be christened the Shi Lang, after the Ming-Qing Dynasty naval admiral who conquered Taiwan in 1681, or Liu Huaqing, the father of China's modern Navy.
What is certain is that it will not be the last Chinese aircraft carrier. There are indicators, though anecdotal, that China is preparing to build up to three carriers at the Jiangnan Shipyard on Changxing Island in Shanghai.
Job-wanted advertisements in local newspapers have dropped hints the work is for a carrier program, Li said.
Li said one recent job advertisement for a heavy-lift vehicle contract said it sought "drivers to work on carrier project." There have also been reports by residents that "blonde foreigners," possibly Ukrainian engineers, have been seen living in a hotel near the shipyard.
Observers must be careful not "to fall into the trap of using every bit of gossip from some dockside fruit seller as fact," he said. China's carrier program has become a "heavy rumor mill." With 11 aircraft carriers at its disposal, the U.S. has little to fear from China's carrier program. Even if China had several aircraft carriers, "I don't think it will reshape the strategic balance much in favor of China," said Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director of the Center for National Strategy Studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
However, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam face a different scenario. China has threatened to invade Taiwan if it continues to resist unification. An aircraft carrier off Taiwan's eastern coast would close off access by the U.S. military coming to the island's aid during a war.
Vietnam and the Philippines have been facing problems with an aggressive Chinese Navy in the South China Sea, which China claims as a "core interest." On Aug. 3, the People's Daily, China's main Communist Party newspaper, warned the Philippines against building a shelter on the disputed Nansha Island in the Spratly Islands, calling it "a severe strategic error." As part of Vietnam's insurance against continued Chinese threats, the Navy is procuring Russian arms, including six Kilo-class attack submarines, two Gepard-class missile frigates and 20 more Sukhoi Su-30 fighter aircraft armed with anti-ship missiles. Vietnam's Navy has five aging Russian-built Petya-class frigates, two North Korean-built Yugo-class midget submarines, along with several missile corvettes. Any conflict between the navies of China and the Philippines or Vietnam would be an "unequal contest," said Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
"China's South Sea Fleet should be quite capable in fending off any threats that Vietnam could offer. The Philippines Navy in its present state would be destroyed at a distance due to lack of sensors, appropriate strike weapons and air cover," Thayer said.
At present, the Vietnamese could land some punches, he said.
"Vietnam might be able to pull off a few surprises through deception with hit-and-run raids by guidedmissile fast-attack craft or by luring Chinese ships into range of its Bastion land-based anti-ship missiles," he said.
Vietnam possesses some "potent" anti-ship missiles but lacks the experience to stand up to China's South Sea Fleet.
Such a conflict would most likely occur with sufficient warning time for the Philippines and Vietnam to withdraw their naval forces and not engage in a head-to-head naval confrontation, Thayer said.
"The United States has promised to assist the Philippines with maritime domain awareness, and it is not inconceivable that the U.S. might forewarn Vietnam if China began to build up and deploy a naval force on Hainan Island," he said.
Chinese plans to field one or more aircraft carriers would change the equation. China's South Sea Fleet has already been improving 3-D combat at sea - surface, subsurface and air - with numerous exercises over the past two years. China could also bring in elements from the East and North Sea fleets to assist in any sea battle in the South China Sea.
* 1992: Soviet Union stops construction of the Varyag, a former Kuznetsov-class carrier, at 60 percent complete.Ownership is later transferred to Ukraine.
* April 1998: Ukraine puts the Varyag up for auction. The Chong Lot Travel Agency procures the ship for $20 million for use as a "casino" in Macau.
* 2001: Ukraine sells a prototype of the Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-borne fighter jet to Shenyang Aircraft Corp.
* March 2002: Vessel arrives in Dalian Shipyard, China.
* June 2005: Refurbishment begins.
* September 2008: The PLA Daily newspaper announces that 50 pilots were inducted at the Dalian Naval Academy to undergo training on ship-borne aircraft flight.
* 2009: A mock-up of the Varyag is constructed at the Wuhan Naval Research Facility near Huangjie Lake, Wuhan, China.
* 2010: Photos surface of the J-15 Flying Shark, which is identical to the Su-33.
* 2011: April: A People's Daily website reports the Varyag has entered its last stage, with the hull being painted light gray-blue, standard for all ships in the Chinese Navy.
* June 7: Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army, admits in a newspaper interview with the Chinese-language Hong Kong Commercial Daily that China has an aircraft carrier program.
* July 27: The Chinese Defense Ministry officially confirms the Varyag is being refitted as a "scientific research, experiment and training" vessel.
* July 29: Gen. Luo Yuan, a senior researcher with the Academy of Military Sciences, tells the Beijing News that China would need a minimum of three aircraft carriers.

North Korea Fires Shells Near Border With South

SEOUL, South Korea - North Korea twice fired shells near the flashpoint Yellow Sea border with South Korea on Aug. 10, prompting warning shots from the South's marines in response, Seoul's military said.
The incidents fuelled already high tensions along the disputed sea border, which saw bloody naval skirmishes in recent years and a deadly shelling attack on South Korea's Yeonpyeong island last November.
The first incident came at 1 p.m. local time, when Seoul's defense ministry said a North Korean shell landed near the border, known as the Northern Limit Line (NLL).
Marines based on Yeonpyeong island broadcast a warning and then fired three warning shots from K-9 self-propelled guns.
The North's coastal artillery fired again at 7:46 p.m. towards the border and the South again fired warning shots in response, a ministry spokesman told AFP.
"There were no more shots afterwards, but we're now closely watching the situation," he said, declining to say how many rounds were fired.
Yonhap news agency quoted a resident of Yeonpyeong island as saying the North fired three shots in the evening, the same number as earlier in the day.
The ministry said the initial shells may have been fired during a training exercise.
The border firing came after the North made apparent peace overtures in recent weeks and expressed interest in restarting stalled six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.
Nuclear envoys from the two Koreas held rare talks in Bali last month, and a senior North Korean official visited New York later for discussions with U.S. officials.
Troops on Yeonpyeong and other frontline islands have been on high alert since last November's bombardment, which killed four South Koreans including two civilians and damaged scores of buildings.
The government has reinforced troops and sent extra weaponry to the islands.
The firing in early afternoon briefly sparked alarm on Yeonpyeong, where some 1,800 civilians live along with the Marine garrison.
"The residents were preparing to evacuate their homes for shelters since they went through a similar thing in the past," a spokeswoman for Ongjin county, which oversees the island, told AFP.
But they did not actually move to shelters since things have calmed down," the spokeswoman said, speaking before the evening firing.
The NLL was drawn unilaterally by United Nations forces after the 1950-53 war. The North refuses to accept it and says it should run further to the south.
The boundary line was the scene of deadly naval clashes in 1999, 2002 and November 2009. The South also accuses the North of torpedoing one of its warships near the NLL in March 2010, with the loss of 46 lives.
The North denied the charge but last November shelled Yeonpyeong in the first attack on a civilian-populated area in the South since the war.
The North said it was responding to a South Korean artillery drill which encroached into its waters.

Chinese Troops Join Pakistan Exercise

NEW DELHI - The Pakistan Army has included Chinese troops for the first time in exercises that were conducted along the border with the Indian states of Punjab and Rajasthan, Indian Defence Ministry sources said.
The 101 Engineering Regiment of China's People's Liberation Army is taking part in the exercises, the sources added. No Defence Ministry official has publicly commented on the exercises, but Indian Army officials privately have expressed great concern.
Indian military strategy calls for the capability to fight Pakistan and China simultaneously. While Indian defense officials admit India will spend $100 billion in the next 10 years on weapons and equipment, military analysts here say that figure could well reach $150 billion, given plans to prepare for both Pakistan and China.
New Delhi claims China has been helping Pakistan build its nuclear arsenal along with delivery systems. Pakistan buys a variety of weapons, aircraft and equipment from China, including airborne warning aircraft, fighter jets and precision-guided munitions.
Recent sales of Chinese conventional weapons to Pakistan include JF-17 fighters along with production facilities, F-22P frigates with helicopters, K-8 trainer jets, T-85 tanks, F-7 aircraft, small arms and ammunition. Pakistan also is seeking to buy 36 Chinese-made J-10 fighters.
Pakistan also has sought Chinese help to build nuclear-capable missiles near Rawalpindi, Indian Defence Ministry sources said.

Israel Deploys Drones Over Gas Fields: Report

JERUSALEM - Israel has deployed drones to keep watch on gas fields off its northern coast, fearing attack by the Hezbollah militia from neighboring Lebanon, the Jerusalem Post daily reported on Aug. 9.
The fields lie in a part of the Mediterranean that is claimed by Israel for gas exploration and production, but Lebanon says the fields lie within its territorial waters.
"The decision to deploy drones was made in order to maintain a 24-hour presence over the site," the paper said, adding that the air force was equipped with the locally made Heron drone, which has special electro-optics designed for maritime work.
The Israeli military would not confirm or deny the Post report to AFP.
The paper said that the air force started aerial surveillance after a warning last month from Hezbollah, which in 2006 fought a deadly war with the Jewish state in which it used anti-ship missiles.
"The Israeli enemy cannot drill a single meter in these waters to search for gas and oil if the zone is disputed … No company can carry out prospecting work in waters whose sovereignty is contested," the Shiite group said.
The Hezbollah threat came after Israel's cabinet approved a map of the country's proposed maritime borders with Lebanon and submitted it to the United Nations, which has been asked to mediate in the dispute.
The map conflicts with one submitted by Lebanon to the U.N. last year, which gives Israel less territory.
The two countries are technically at war and will not negotiate face to face.
The disputed zone consists of about 330 square miles.
The two biggest known offshore fields, Tamar and Leviathan, lie respectively about 50 miles and 81 miles off Israel's northern city of Haifa.
Tamar is believed to hold at least 8.4 trillion cubic feet of gas, while Leviathan is believed to have reserves of 16 trillion cubic feet.
In June an Israeli company announced the discovery of two new natural gas fields, Sarah and Mira, around 45 miles off the city of Hadera further south.

Moscow To NATO: Do Not Extend Missile Shield

OSLO - Russia cautioned the U.S. and its NATO allies Aug. 8 against plans to extend an anti-missile shield into northern European seas.
On a visit to Norway, Russia's ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin deplored the lack of any firm guarantees from the alliance that American ships fitted with anti-missile technology would not be deployed in northern waters.
"The very fact of deploying U.S. military missile defense infrastructure in the Northern seas is a real provocation with regard to the process of nuclear disarmament", said Rogozin at a press conference.
"Why is no one giving guarantees that a U.S. fleet equipped with Aegis interceptor systems won't be deployed in the Northern seas?" he said.
"I'm sure that if there were no such plans in reality, then I would have been given a very definite negative answer. I didn't get any firm answer to this question," he said, adding that Russia had repeatedly asked the U.S. for answers.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed at a NATO summit in November to explore the possibility of cooperating on a system to protect Europe's population from the threat of ballistic missiles from countries such as Iran.
Fearing that the system would undermine its nuclear deterrent, Moscow has since been demanding a legally binding guarantee that the missile shield would not be aimed at Russia.
Rogozin also called on Norway's foreign affairs minister, Jonas Gahr Stoere, to oppose the plan.
"The countries that are going to join in participating in these plans are going to share the responsibility like the initiators of that project," he said, warning Europe "not to hide behind the back of the United States."
Despite the lack of consensus, NATO adopted a plan to forge ahead with the shield in June.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who is overseeing continuing talks between NATO defense ministers and Russia, said he was optimistic that a deal on guarantees could be reached in time for the next NATO summit hosted by the United States in May 2012.
The missile shield project will not be completed before 2018, NATO officials estimate.

U.S. Helo Crashed in Taliban Trap: Afghan Official

PULI ALAM, Afghanistan - The Taliban lured U.S. forces into an elaborate trap to shoot down their helicopter, killing 30 American troops in the deadliest such incident of the war, an Afghan official said Aug. 8.
The Taliban lured U.S. forces into an elaborate trap to shoot down their helicopter -- similar to this CH-47 Chinook -- an Afghan official said. (Pfc. Donald Watkins / Army)

A total of 38 people - 25 U.S. special forces members, five U.S. crew members, seven Afghan commandos plus an interpreter - were killed when their Chinook came down during an anti-Taliban operation late Aug. 5.
The crash marked the biggest single loss of life for American and NATO forces since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban in late 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The senior Afghan government official told AFP on condition of anonymity that Taliban commander Qari Tahir lured U.S. forces to the scene by tipping them off that a Taliban meeting was taking place.
He also said four Pakistanis helped Tahir carry out the strike.
"Now it's confirmed that the helicopter was shot down and it was a trap that was set by a Taliban commander," said the official, citing intelligence gathered from the area.
"The Taliban knew which route the helicopter would take," he added.
"That's the only route, so they took position on the either side of the valley on mountains and as the helicopter approached, they attacked it with rockets and other modern weapons. It was brought down by multiple shots."
The official, who spoke anonymously as he was not authorized to discuss the issue, also said President Hamid Karzai's U.S.-backed government "thinks" the attack was retaliation for the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The Taliban themselves did not make such an assertion on claiming responsibility for the attack, which took place in the Taliban-infested Sayd Abad district of Wardak province, just southwest of Kabul.
In Washington, the U.S. military said it was too early to say whether the helicopter had been lured into a trap.
"I would say any conclusion like that is premature until we conduct an investigation in terms of the facts. That's just speculation," Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan told reporters.
U.S. media reported the dead included members of the Navy's SEAL Team 6, the secretive unit behind the daring raid that killed bin Laden in Pakistan in May.
U.S. administration sources interviewed by AFP said the casualties did not include anyone who took part in the bin Laden raid on May 2.
When questioned about whether the attack was linked to a trap laid by a Taliban commander, the militia's spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said: "We have used various tactics over the past 10 years. This could also be a tactic. The informant could have been one of our comrades."
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said the cause of the crash was still being investigated but issued a statement giving details of the moments before the fatal crash.
"The operation began as a security search for a Taliban leader responsible for insurgent operations in the nearby Tangi Valley," it said.
The first wave of ISAF ground troops exchanged fire with several insurgents with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s, killing several, the statement added.
"As the insurgents continued to fire, the combined force on the ground requested additional forces to assist the operation.
"Those additional personnel were inbound to the scene when the CH-47 (Chinook) carrying them crashed, killing all on board," it said.
Afghan officials said an insurgent rocket downed the helicopter, which was said to have broken into several parts after being hit.
The Pentagon said a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade was "believed" to have knocked out the chopper, which was carrying 22 Navy SEAL commandos, three Air Force special forces members and five Army personnel.
In eastern Afghanistan on Aug. 8, another helicopter made a "hard landing" in Paktya province, although no one was injured and there were no reports of insurgent fire, ISAF said.
U.S. President Barack Obama and his Afghan counterpart Karzai reaffirmed their commitment to the war "which is critical to the security of both our countries" on Aug. 7 in a telephone call following Friday's crash, the White House said.
There are currently around 140,000 foreign soldiers in Afghanistan, including about 100,000 U.S. troops.
All international combat troops are due to leave by the end of 2014, but intense violence in recent months, including a series of assassinations in the south, has raised questions about the capability of Afghan forces.