Robert Beckheusen writes for Medium, Oct. 19, 2014, that China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning, a potent symbol of the growing naval power of the revived Middle Kingdom, is prone to engine failures.
The 53,000-ton, 999-foot-long carrier’s previous incarnation was as the ex-Soviet carrier Varyag that China had bought from a cash-strapped Ukraine in 1998. An unnamed PLA officer told the Chinese media site Sina.com that Varyag was a “basket case.”
In 2005, the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy began modernizing the warship into the Liaoning by rebuilding the carrier from the inside. New electronics, self-defense anti-aircraft guns and new engines were just some of the upgrades.
But on at least one occasion during recent sea trials, Liaoning appeared to suffer a steam explosion that temporarily knocked out the carrier’s electrical power system. Sina.com says the engine failure was due to a leak in “the machine oven compartment to the water pipes.”
Outsiders, however, know very little about the carrier’s engine problems, what’s inside the ship, or even what kind of engines Liaoning has. Adding to the opacity is the fact that the Chinese government doesn’t like to admit to problems with its military hardware. When it does, the admissions often come months or years after problems come up.
In the case of Liaoning‘s recent accident, according to Sina.com, hot water and steam began “spewing” out of the engine’s oven compartment. One cabin became “instantly submerged in water vapor.” The crew immediately evacuated the cabin, with one officer apparently pulling a sailor out by his collar to save him from the boiling hot steam. The carrier then lost power, but the crew “eventually restored power to ensure the smooth operation of the ship.” That suggests that the accident wasn’t a catastrophic boiler failure of the kind that would unleash almost instantaneously lethal, high-pressure steam. Instead, it appears Liaoning suffered a low-pressure steam release involving a faulty heat exchanger. Vessels commonly use heat exchangers to control water temperature necessary for regulating internal power and heating.
Engine failures are not an unknown phenomenon aboard ex-Soviet carriers. As examples:
- Two years ago, India’s 40,000-ton displacement carrier Vikramaditya—first a Soviet Kiev-class carrier commissioned in 1987 and sold in 2004—temporarily shut down at sea after a boiler overheated.
- The 50,000-ton Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov goes nowhere without a tug escort in case her engines break down.
As Beijing’s first serviceable carrier, the Chinese navy isn’t going to get rid of Liaoning any time soon. The ship is a valuable resource for naval flight operations. Even if China never sends her into battle, she’s useful for training and learning how carriers work.
But powerplant problems can also make it so China can do little else. Failures can add costly repairs, shorten the vessel’s lifespan and force her to crawl along the water at slow speeds. Beijing also lacks large overseas naval bases—a necessity if trouble arises while Liaoning sails far from China’s shores.
Given all that, Liaoning is more similar to its ex-Soviet cousins than different—confined to home ports and restricted from challenging rivals like India.
In 2010, writing in the Chinese-language Global Times, military analyst Liu Zhongmin admitted that although “China began to send navy convoys on anti-piracy missions to the Gulf of Aden and the Somali coast in 2008, the lack of overseas bases has emerged as a major impediment to the Chinese navy’s cruising efficiency.”
To this must now be added Liaoning‘s engine problems.
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