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Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag

Varyag was to be a Kuznetsov-class multirole aircraft carrier. She was known as Riga when her keel was laid down at Nikolayev South (formerly Shipyard 444) on 6 December 1985, and she was launched on 4 December 1988, but she was renamed Varyag (Varangian) in late 1990.

Construction stopped by 1992 with the ship structurally complete but without electronics. Ownership was transferred to the Ukraine as the Soviet Union broke up and the ship was laid up unmaintained, then stripped. In early 1998, she lacked engines, a rudder, and much of her operating systems. She was put up for auction.

In April, Ukrainian Trade Minister Roman Shprek announced the winning bid -- US$20 million from a small Hong Kong company called the Chong Lot Travel Agency Ltd. Chong Lot proposed to tow Varyag out of the Black Sea, through the Suez Canal and around southern Asia to Macao, where they would moor the ship and convert it into a floating hotel and gambling parlor.

However, considerable evidence suggested that the future of Varyag is linked to the People's Republic of China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and its program to develop an aircraft carrier.

Before the auction was closed, officials in Macau had warned Chong Lot that they would not be permitted to park Varyag in the harbor. The sale was carried out anyway. Chong Lot is owned by a Hong Kong firm called Chin Luck (Holdings) Company. Four of Chin Luck's six board members live in Yantai, China where a major Chinese Navy shipyard is located. Chin Luck's chairman is a former career military officer with the People's Liberation Army. (It is not unusual in mainland China for a company that actually is involved in tourism or travel to be controlled by former PLA officers.)

However, the People's Republic of China's interest in Varyag is puzzling. Due to the poor condition of the hulk, it is thought highly unlikely that the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will commission the carrier; rather, many analysts suggest that the PLAN intends to examine the carrier as a model for an indigenous carrier to be built later. Others counter that the carrier does not represent modern technology; the PLAN could probably have learned all they needed from Varyag without towing it all the way to China.

In mid-2000, a Dutch tug with a Filipino crew was hired to take Varyag under tow. However, Chong Lot could not get permission from Turkey to transit the dangerous Bosporus strait -- in addition to safety issues, the Montreux Treaty of 1936 does not allow aircraft carriers to pass the Dardanelles -- and the hulk spent 16 months circling in the Black Sea. High-level PRC government ministers conducted negotiations in Ankara on Chong Lot's behalf, offering to allow Chinese tourists to visit cash-strapped Turkey if the travel agency's ship were allowed to pass through the straits. On 1 November 2001, Turkey finally relented from its position that the vessel posed too great of a danger to the bridges of Istanbul, and allowed the transit.

Escorted by 27 vessels including 11 tug boats and three pilot boats, Varyag took six hours to transit the strait; most large ships take an hour and a half. The Russian press reported that 16 pilots and 250 seamen were involved. At 11:45am on 2 November, she completed her passage and made for Gallipoli and Çanakkale at 5.8 knots. She passed through the Dardanelles without incident.

On 3 November, Varyag was caught in a force 9 gale and broke adrift while passing the Aegean island of Skyros. Turkish and Greek sea rescue workers tried to re-capture the hulk, which was drifting toward the island of Evia. The seven-member crew (three Russians, three Ukrainians and one Filipino) remained on board as six tugboats tried to reestablish their tow. However, after many failed attempts to reattach the lines, a Greek coast guard rescue helicopter landed on Varyag and picked up four of the seven crew. One tug managed to make a line fast to the ship later in the day, but high winds severely hampered efforts by two other tugs to secure the ship. On 6 November, Aries Lima (reported as both Dutch and Portuguese), a sailor from the tug Haliva Champion, died after a fall while attempting to reattach the tow ropes. On 7 November, the hulk was taken back under tow and progress resumed at some three knots.

The Suez Canal does not permit passage of "dead" ships -- those without power -- so the hulk was towed through the Straits of Gibraltar, around the Cape of Good Hope, and through the Straits of Malacca. The tugs towing the hulk maintained an average speed of 6 knots over the 15,200 nautical mile journey, calling for bunkers and supplies at Piraeus, Greece, Las Palmas, Canary Islands, Maputo, Mozambique, and Singapore en route. They entered Chinese waters on 20 February 2002, and arrived 3 March at Dalian Shipyard in northeastern China. China continued to assert that Varyag will be a casino. However, when Macau awarded new casino licenses in February 2002, Chong Lot was not among successful bidders. The total cost of acquiring the hulk was over $US30 million -- $US25 million to the Ukrainian government for the hull, nearly US$500,000 in transit fees, and some US$5 million for the towing.


Analysts believe that the PLAN will use Varyag as a training platform for carrier take-offs and landings. Robert Karniol, the Asia editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, said: "The Chinese haven't seen this type of carrier before and it could be very useful to them. They are trying to vacuum up as much knowhow as they can." Liu Huaqing, a senior general of the PLAN, has spoken of the 21st century as the "century of the sea" and called for naval modernisation over several decades. Independent experts say, however, that China's shipyards may be able to build carrier hulls, and former Soviet naval architects may be available to help design the catapults and arresting gear.

The United States Department of Defense's annual report on Chinese military capabilities for 2002 states "while continuing to research and discuss possibilities, China appears to have set aside indefinitely plans to acquire an aircraft carrier."

In November 2002, however, another Hong Kong-based company purchased the Brazilian aircraft carrier Minas Gerais for $2 million. The company was unable to pay, and this carrier went up for sale again, with an attempt to auction it on ebay.

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