A FLOATING COLLEGE OF NAVAL EXPERTISE
Officers aboard the nation’s first aircraft carrier are preparing a new generation of sailors for the PLA Navy. Zhang Zhihao reports from CNS
CNS Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, is currently serving asatraining ship for the next generation of officers who will serve on the country’s aircraft carriers. The role is paramount because the defense ministry confirmed that construction of a second carrier had neared completion on Oct 27, as per schedule.
According to the website of People’s Daily, Cao Weidong, a naval expert and officer in the People’s Liberation Army, expects to see the second carrier finished sometime in the next two years.
The training techniques and personnel on the Liaoning have been shrouded in mystery, until now.
Li Dongyou, the ship’s political commissar, said 42 senior officers serve on the vessel as instructors, and most of them were members of the carrier’s refitting team in 2009. “Now, they are the technical backbones of their departments and role models for young recruits,” he said.
PLANavy documents show that each senior officer has trained three or more squad leaders on average, accounting for 70 percent of the young officers onboard.
Risking lives for knowledge
These officers were either selected based on their expertise or were volunteers who “wanted to serve on a bigger ship and be a part of history”, said RuanWanlin, 44, a first class petty officer.
Although they have served in the navy for more than two decades and have combined experience of more than 450 missions, the officers said transforming the Varyag, a former Soviet Union battle cruiser, into the CNS Liaoning was the biggest challenge they had ever faced.
LiuDebo, 44, afirstclasspettyofficerwith26 years experience in boiler rooms, was stunned whenhesawthe Soviet vessel for the first time. “It was a floating junkyard,” he recalled.
Originally laid down as a Kuznetsov-class carrier named Riga for the Soviet navy in 1985, the ship was renamed Varyag in 1990. The USSR collapsed before construction could be completed, so the hull was transferred to Ukraine where it lay untended until it was bought by China in 1998.
In 2002, the ship arrived in Dalian, Liaoning province, where the hull, engine, and radar and electronics systems were fully upgraded.
In the winter of 2009, Liu boarded the Liaoning to repair its engine—“the heart of the carrier” — but problems soon arose. “There were no design layouts, no models and no experience to rely on,” Liu said. “We had to start everything from scratch.”
CNSLiaoning has about 20 decks, containing more than 3,600 rooms, served by about 10,000 kilometers of wires and pipes. When Liaoning. Liu and the team began their survey of the vessel, the interior had neither ventilation nor lights, and the maze-like tunnels were filled with brokenpipesandtorn, rustymetal.
The teams went in with helmets, flashlights, facemasks and measuring equipment. “We climbed through every hatch, followed every pipe and drewevery detail by hand. We risked our lives so that one day the ship would sail again,” Liu said.
Second Class Petty OfficerWang Chunhui and his team descended into the dark, pungent fuel tanks to measure their dimensions. Each carried 30 minutes of air in tanks, but most members could only endure 15 minutes because of exhaustionandfear of getting poisoned.
The exception wasWang. The 38-year-old worked until his clothes were drenched in sweat and the alarm sounded on his respirator. When his young crew asked him to rest, he told them: “I have more experience than you guys; I have to do more.”
After a typical working day, the officers often huddled around a blackboard in a meeting room until after midnight to discuss technical details, despite the temperature often dipping as low as -20 C. Having accumulated thousands of pages of notes, some of the officers have published operation manuals and training pamphlets.
On Sept 25, 2012, the vessel, now officially called CNS Liaoning, was handed over to the navy.
“If we ever build a museum to the Liaoning, I hope there will be a section where our broken hardhats and dirty gloves are exhibited so future generations know the hardships we went through,” said Wang Wei, a 39-year-old second class petty officer, who surveyed the ship’s electrical system.
number of senior officers on CNS Their average age is 39, and their average length of service is 20 years.
Passing the torch
There is a slogan on the Liaoning: “Carrier duty is not a candle, but a torch. The veterans have to keep it burning bright, and pass it to the next generation.”
Cui Yuxiao, 37, a third class petty officer responsible for the ship’s anti-aircraft missiles, requires his men to study their equipment extensively, from casing to circuitry. “Love your weapons like your eyes. We must know the equipment inside out to be absolutely confident,” he said.
Most of the vessel’s new recruits are recent graduates of the nation’s naval academy and have gone through rigorous exams, ranging from computing lessons to English skills, so “they know how to study and learn very fast”, saidXuBochao, a teaching administrator from the engine unit.
Some lessons come when least expected. One night, a sailor was dozing off in the battle command room, the ship’s operational nerve center, when the radar picked up an incoming signal.
Yi Guo, the second class petty officer in charge that night, noticed the onscreen anomaly and reported the target’s details to his superiors. The target turned out to be a drill designed to assess the crew’s alertness and readiness. The 39-year-old officer urged the young sailor to “stay vigilant, even during drills”.
Some officers teach by example. WangWei has enriched his life by reading widelyandhe encourages his subordinates to do the same. “I keep a dictionary of idioms in my locker,” Wang said. “People may be amused by that, but if I find a book useful, I read it.”
He also likes to use metaphors to convey a sense of duty and purpose to the young recruits. “We should be like sunflowers — even if we are working below decks, our hearts should be filled with sunlight,” he said.
During a media tour of the Liaoning, Li Zha, a 27-year-old deputy squad leader from the boiler team, opened a small hatch on one of the steam boilers to display the purple flames inside. “This is the soul of the carrier,” he said. “It’s alsomy ‘sun’. Isn’t it pretty?”
approximate number of decks on CNS Liaoning approximate number of rooms on CNS Liaoning, which are served by about 10,000 kilometers of wires and pipes
Members of CNS Liaoning’s crew march along the dockside in Qingdao, Shandong province.
A member of the ground crew directs the pilot of a J-15 jet fighter on the flight deck of CNS Liaoning.