China may be ready to launch its first aircraft carrier in 2011, Chinese military and political sources said on Thursday, a year ahead of US military analysts' expectations.
Analysts expect China to use its first operational aircraft carrier to ensure the security of its oil supply route through the Indian Ocean and near the disputed Spratly Islands, but full capability is still some years away.
China sees its ever-expanding fleet of merchant ships, especially oil tankers, and the shipping lanes they use through the Malacca Strait and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, as needing protection. Chinese warships have undertaken anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden.
Growing overseas investment and rising numbers of Chinese citizens living or working overseas, especially in Southeast Asia and Africa, also need protection.
"The period around July 1 next year to celebrate the (Chinese Communist) Party's birthday is one window (for launch)," one source with ties to the leadership told Reuters, requesting anonymity because the carrier programme is one of China's most closely guarded secrets. The Defence Ministry spokesman's office declined to comment.
The possible launch next year of the ex-Soviet aircraft carrier 'Varyag' for training, and testing technology, will be one step towards building an operating aircraft carrier group, analysts said. The US Office of Naval Intelligence estimates the Varyag will be launched as a training platform by 2012, and China will have an operational domestically built carrier after 2015.
China, which would be the third Asian country to have a carrier after India and Thailand, needs hardware, software and pilot training.
"The acquisition of a carrier doesn't equate to the acquisition of a capability -- the ability to use it effectively -- the latter involving a process that can take decades," said Robert Karniol, a veteran defence analyst based in Canada.
Chinese air force pilots have yet to master takeoffs and landings from carriers. They have been undergoing training, but have far fewer flying hours than their US peers.